© 2013 Monty J Heying (all rights reserved)
(Fort Worth, Texas, February, 1959)
It’s night time. There’s no moon. The dim green “Exit” sign over the fire escape door at the far end of the Big Boys dormitory casts a shadowy message onto the ceiling in warped fuzzy letters. Radiators hiss and the pulsing glow from the headlights of passing cars plays along rows of lockers and bunk beds cradling sixteen sleeping boys.
In t-shirt and jockey shorts, Joey climbs down from his bunk and hurries barefoot to the bathroom where he sees a flickering light and crosses to the inner room where Matt is lying under a blanket in the empty bathtub reading by candle light.
“What ‘cha readin’, Bird?” Joey’s voice echoes in the tiny room.
“Three Musketeers,” Matt says, squinting at the page.
Joey slides his back down the wall and props his feet against the tub. “My feet are cold,” he says and tugs a corner of Matt’s blanket over his toes. “You’re not s’posed to be here,” he says.
Matt turns a page.
“You ever wonder ‘bout gettin’ adopted?” Joey says.
Matt looks up. “Adopted? No,” he lies, “Why?”
“Janet Potter got adopted last November, and John Nesbitt did yesterday.”
Matt puts down the book, “Yeah. I saw Ingstrom moving his stuff into Nesbitt’s locker.”
The candle flickers. Matt raises the collar of his denim jacket.
Joey says, “Miz Crow says he’s gonna live with some old people on a farm over near Tyler.” He shoves a shock of wavy blonde hair out of his eyes. “It’s not fair. Nobody said anything ‘bout John leaving ‘til he was already gone.” He waves his arm. “Poof. Casper the Friendly Ghost.”
“Yeah,” Matt says, “I wish somebody’d said something.” He stares at his wavering shadow on the wall, then turns to Joey. “I wonder when TC knew. It might’ve been okay for John, but not for TC. How’d you like it if they came ‘n took your brother?”
“I don’t have any brothers.”
Matt makes a face. “You got three sisters, Dope. 'Sides, you got us.” He thumbs his chest. “Did ya see how TC moped around yesterday? Nobody could even get ‘im to play washers. TC always throws washers. He jus’ laid there, lookin’ at the clouds.”
“Yeah.” Joey says. “Gee, Bird, you been here what, three years? That's longer’n anybody.”
Matt counts fingers, then shakes his head, frowning. “Nope,” he says. “Four years come next month. Nomilk an’ Butch an’ John an’ TC were already here when I came. Mr. Lovejoy wasn’t even here and now he’s been gone half a year.”
Joey scowls. “I been here more’n a year. I don’t want to be here four years. I don’t wanna be here another stinkin’ day!” He stomps the tub.
Matt makes a face. “Shh! You’ll wake up Crow.”
Joey lowers his voice. “Some kids leave after just a few weeks. Remember Schoonover? MacLeroy? Guys come ‘n’ go all the time. Donner went to live with his aunt in Amarillo after just a year. Lucky guys like John get adopted by people they don’t even know, an’ you been here four years! How come you never got adopted?”
Matt frowns and retracts his arms under the blanket. “Donner was here a year ‘n a half,” he says. “Anyway, I’m thirteen. Teenagers don’t get adopted.”
Joey says, “Face it; nobody’s coming. Wouldn’t you like to have parents—you know, somebody to help you figure things out? Have fried chicken during the week ‘stead o’ just on Sunday?”
Matt says, “I got two parents. You’d think at least one of ‘em would show up some day, but… .”
Matt stares at Joey. “It’s been so long; maybe they forgot I’m here.”
Joey sneers. “Yeah, parental amnesia.” His voice softens. “Whatever happened to your dad?”
Matt shrugs. “I’ve never seen ‘im. My Aunt Carrie said he was a pilot in the Army Air Corps. I saw a picture of ‘im in his uniform. One time I held it up in the mirror to see if he looked like me.”
“Yeah. He did sort of.”
“What about your mother?”
Matt looks at Joey. “She married some guy named Troy right after Anne n’ I came here.”
“What was she like?”
Matt sighs, leans back and stares at the ceiling. “She was a knockout. She used to take us to nightclubs and men would give us quarters to play the jukebox.” He glances at Joey. “You shoulda seen her. Really. Anne says she looks like Humphrey Bogart’s girl in that movie, Casablanca.”
Joey looks up at the ceiling where Matt is picturing his mother.
“It was fun,” Matt says. “’Cept she would leave sometimes and it could be scary. We used to go to the 312 Club, jus’ down Lancaster a ways. I’ll show it to you sometime.”
Joey sits up straight and crosses his legs. “My father’s a truck driver an’ sometimes my mother would pack a bag and go with him. Then it’d be just me an’ Paula an’ Vonnie an’ Laurie. We lived on the other side o’ White Settlement in a partly finished house with a dirt floor. Paula’d play mommy and get us up in the morning an’ cook an’ everything. She could make really good pancakes. We had ‘em all the time.” He sighs. “Then the county people came.”
“That’s weird,” Matt says. “We went to White Settlement elementary when they came got us at school. Were you at school when they came?”
“Yeah. It was embarrassing. They announced our names on the loudspeaker. Everybody stared at us, walking out with those social workers.” Joey shivers and stands. “I’m cold n’ I gotta pee. See ya later.”
Matt pictures John Nesbitt on a farmhouse porch petting a dog. How come it was John that got lucky? Maybe they wanted a boy with red hair and freckles. Couldn’a been grades. How do they decide? He hears the urinal flush and the outer door close as Joey leaves. He pictures himself with a dog on a porch. A German shepherd like Prince.
The candle is now a dot of flame in a puddle of melted wax.
A biting grey wind turns Carrie Preston’s head as the bus pulls away trailing dirty exhaust. The heavy elderly woman sets down her shoulder bag next to her shopping bag and repositions the colorful scarf over her ears, knotting it under her chin. She has six lanes and a median to cross without a signal or crosswalk. She gathers her things, turns and is pulled off balance by the slipstream of a semi-truck barreling past. She staggers, then begins again. Shoulders hunched and tilting side to side she makes it across and starts up the long sidewalk toward the main entrance of the three-story red brick building.
It’s visitation Sunday at the children’s home, and many of the cars parked along the Ben Avenue side street are familiar to her from years of monthly trips to see her niece’s children. Two-toned Fords and Chevys, a Plymouth. Older models, their engines running for warmth against the icy wind whipping at their tailpipe steam.
Visitation is three hours, but she knows that rusted Buick over there will leave in half an hour. It always has.
Midway there Carrie stops to catch her breath and sets down the bags. In the shopping bag are donations from church, a pair of slacks for Matt and a skirt she hemmed for Anne—lower of course than the girl wanted. Lord, the way girls dress these days!
She lays a gloved hand against one of the scrubby live oaks that populate the orphanage grounds. The trees remind her of when her sister Mintie died of pneumonia. It was the day after Christmas twenty-seven years ago, the Depression years.
Mintie had seen the front page picture of the newly built children’s home on the front page of The Fort Worth Press. In the picture these oak trees were mere sticks. She had Carrie read the article out loud. The Home was a WPA project, a place for children whose parents had run out of luck. Or who’d simply run out, as Mintie’s husband had. “Please,” Mintie whispered, “don’t… let my babies go there.”
By morning Mintie’s body was cold and her words were branded on Carrie’s heart. On a store clerk’s wages and seamstressing on the side she honored Mintie’s wish and kept a roof over Mildred and Roy. Time passed. World War II broke out and the beautiful and flighty Mildred married a young Army lieutenant. She gave birth to Anne, then Matty. But when the war ended so did the marriage. Mildred went to pieces and Carrie stepped in to take care of the children, praying each day that her niece would win her battle with the bottle and find another husband.
Over the years the children had brought both struggle and joy as Carrie fed, clothed and housed them. She watched them grow and protected them while Mildred drifted out and back and out again on tides of men and booze.
Then Lee came along. He was the love of Carrie’s life but there wasn’t room in the house for Lee, his bottle, his law books and the children. He was her last chance for happiness. She sent Ann and Matty to Mildred. And look what happened. Just, look.
At the foot of the concrete stairs Carrie looks up toward the French doors. There are no handrails to steady her in the bucking wind. She waits for the fear to subside, whispering a little prayer. Who would care for her if she fell? Who would care for Lee?
She takes a deep breath and begins. One step. Another step.
In the visitors’ lounge she signs the register and goes into the library. She settles her things and sits at one of the tables. She opens Daily Word, adjusts her bifocals and starts reading.
Upstairs in the Big Boys’ dormitory Matt is reading the Sunday comics when one of the Big Girls yells up the stairwell, “Miz Crow! Matty’s got a vis--ter in the li--bary!”
“Matt, d’you hear… ?” Mrs. Crow calls from her apartment.
“Yes, M’am.” Matt is already through the double doors, jacket in hand, heading for the stairs.
A thick din of voices hovers like smoke as Matt squeezes past a grinning toothless old man reeking of tobacco and enters the large room. Two walls are lined with waist-high bookcases. An enormous well-worn dictionary sits open high on a stand in a corner. There’s a smell of diapers and baby talc. Three of the four sturdy oak tables are occupied with children and adults, none well-dressed, some in work clothes.
Carrie is seated, stooping toward Anne who’s holding the skirt at her waist while Carrie works at raising the hem. Matt sits across from them and watches his great-aunt transfer pins from her mouth to the skirt while repeatedly nudging her glasses back up the bridge of her nose.
Anne is a striking fifteen year-old with a womanly figure. She stands quietly, twisting and craning her neck to follow Carrie’s hands. She rearranges her hair and Carrie mumbles, “Be still!” past the straight pins.
Her pinning finished Carrie grunts and sits erect, red-faced. “Phew!” she says, dabbing at her mouth with a hanky. “I’ll get it sewed and in the mail to you.”
“Thank you Aunty,” Anne says, smiling, folding the skirt into the bag.
“You want some fruitcake? I made it myself.” Carrie offers Anne a piece, then Matt.
Anne waves her off. “No, thank you. I’m full from lunch.”
A baby’s wail breaks the murmur of voices.
Matt ignores the fruitcake. He takes a deep breath, then blurts, “Aunty, why doesn’t Mommy come get us? She said she would almost four years ago!”
Carrie sits back in her chair, caught off guard. Anne’s eyes widen in surprise at her younger brother’s outburst.
Carrie dabs her lips with a napkin and glances around, then leans forward and says in a lowered voice, “Matty, I don’t know. I just don’t know.” She shakes her head and sighs. “Mildred’s got a new family now, with Troy and Janet, and now Lisa. I ...” She turns aside and her torso jerks in spasms.
She wipes her eyes. “Fact is, Troy doesn’t want to raise someone else’s kids. That’s what he said n’ we might‘s well face it.” She looks at Anne, who crosses her arms and looks away.
“The judge won’t let me take you ‘cause I don’t have the money. Aunt Juanita’s worse off than me and Connie and Morton moved to Colorado to look after his folks. They’re getting old.” She sighs. “I’m getting old. I wish there was someone to look after me. Lee’s got cirrhosis.” She shakes her head. “Lord help us, I jus’ don’t know what this world‘s coming to.” She looks down and twiddles her thumbs.
Anne walks to a window, wipes at the fog and stares out.
Matt hasn’t moved. He’s heard before that his mother’s new husband doesn’t want to raise somebody else’s kids. But this time the words jolt him like a slap in the face.
His voice is soft. “She’s never going to come, is she?”
Carrie winces. “I didn’t say that! Never say never. I know Mildred wants to come for you … it’s just that … well … Troy’s got an ornery streak. He can’t seem to hold a job. My stars! That man thinks the world owes him a livin’.” She looks away, mopping sweat from her brow.
Anne hasn’t moved from the window.
Matt pictures Troy holding a cigarette between tobacco-stained fingers, his beer belly hiding his belt. Troy seldom noticed him except to correct him over something stupid. And Mommy? When was the last time she’d even looked at him?
When visitation is over Anne and Matt are at the French doors watching Aunt Carrie struggle down the steps toward the bus stop.
“She isn’t coming,” Matt says. “Mommy’s never coming.”
“I wrote to our father,” Anne says, not looking at him.
Matt’s eyes shine with excitement. “You wrote him? How’d you get the address?”
“Mr. Logan got it for me.” Her voice is flat, as if describing the weather.
“Did he write you back? Where is he?”
“He’s in Germany, Baden-Baden. He’s still in the Army.”
“What did you say?”
She doesn’t answer.
“What did he say!”
“He’s remarried.” She turns and looks at him, wiping her eyes. “They’ve got a new little baby. He said we’re better off where we are.”
I want to read it.” Where is it?
Anne shakes her head. “I threw it in the incinerator.” Suddenly she turns and is gone.
“Wha-at…?” Matt watches her legs disappear up the stairs.
He folds the five dollar bill Aunty gave him and puts it in his pocket, then returns through the library to the boys’ wing.
At the landing Mrs. Crow is coming out of her apartment with the dominoes. The elderly matron’s face brightens. “Yer just in time,” she says. “I need a Forty-two pardner.”
Matt lifts his hand in a partial wave and keeps moving. She stares after him. Matt rarely misses a chance to play Forty-two.
In the bathroom he slings his jacket over his shoulder, props himself with one arm and leans forward to urinate, trembling, fighting the urge to vomit. Others come and go behind him. Finished, he turns and Joey’s there.
“What’s wrong?” Joey says.
Matt pushes past him. “It’s bullshit,” he says. “It’s all bull-shit!”
“What d’you mean?” Joey says.
Matt goes out the door pulling on his jacket.
“What’s bullshit?” Joey calls after him. “Where ya goin’?”
Matt powers down the stairs and forearms the crash bar with a satisfying “Crunch.” The heavy door bangs open and he is out in the swirling cold, running.
Gravel spurts from his shoes as he starts downhill. Pumping arms and straining for speed he races past the garage, past the clotheslines, down along the fence lined with barren rose bushes and crepe myrtles. In the flat bottom-land of the pecan orchard he drops onto the leaves and watches his aching breath pulse up into the wind.
Gradually Matt notices the hum of traffic from East Lancaster. The ground vibrates from the thumping of tires across tar covered cracks in the road, reminding him of hot summer nights lying head-to-toe in the back seat with Anne, counting lamp posts as they glide past the windows—‘leven … twelve …thirteen. The smell of Mommy’s cigarette and the comforting glow when she takes a drag.
We’ll come get you in a couple of weeks, Mommy said. It’s like being stuck in a revolving door. You go in expecting to come out the other side, but instead you just keep going ‘round and ‘round.
Troy doesn’t want to raise someone else’s kids. It’s him, Matt, that’s the “someone else’s kid.” Mommy knows it too, and just like Aunty she chose a man. It makes sense now—Mommy plus Troy equals Mommy minus Matt and Anne.
The door revolves and Matt’s free. No more waiting for what isn’t going to come.
Beyond the fence is the ash dump from the incinerator, the final resting place for the charred bits of his father’s letter. Better off where we are, Anne said—a string of words from an Army uniform in a photograph, his name-giver. Soldiers are supposed to be strong and brave. What happened?
Matt opens his eyes. It’s good to be alone. He inhales the scent of decaying leaves and listens to his breath. In, and out; in, and out. And he knows that there’s no one he can depend on. For anything. Ever.
It’s getting dark as he gets up and climbs his favorite tree. At the top he anchors a leg around a sturdy limb and watches visitors’ cars creep behind their headlights down the curving driveway. He blows into his cupped hands, presses them against his ears and watches the exit parade until the parking lot is empty.
He climbs down.
In the dimness he trips on a fallen limb. He stoops and takes it in both hands and swings it hard against the tree. Old Maid pecans rattle down and thump to the orchard floor. He grits his teeth and batters the tree and as the shockwaves pulse through him pieces break and spin away and the limb gets lighter and lighter until the stub can break no more. He flings it away and finds another. Grunting, staggering he swings and swings, losing sense of place and time in the furious rhythm of the blows.
Out of breath, he stops and looks around. It takes a moment to remember how he got here. It’s dark now and the tree limbs are silhouetted by the street lights. Up the hill, the dining room lights are on. Suppertime. He looks at his scored and bleeding hands. Steam rises from his jacket. He feels strong. Clean.
The passing cars hum their five o-clock chorus as Matt lopes back up the hill.
Mrs. Crow is waiting at the top of the stairs, arms folded.
“Well, it’s about time y’ showed yer face,” she says in a tone that is not harsh.
“Where’ve ye been? Look at ye; y’ look like some’n’ the cat drug in. Y’ been down in them bottoms; that I kin see.” She takes a pecan leaf from under Matt’s collar. She hands it to him. He hesitates.
“What y’ got back there? Let’s see them hands.”
Matt brings his hands from behind his back. She takes his hands, turning them palms up. “What in tar-nation,” she says, inspecting his injuries. “Git in there and wash them hands, then git right back so we can put somethin’ on ‘em.”
Matt moves through toward the bathroom.
“And don’t dally,” she calls after him. “Wer’ late fer supper as ‘tis.”
When he returns, Mrs. Crow is waiting in the storage closet with a wad of alcohol-soaked cotton. “Lemme see.” She takes his hand, raises the cotton.
“No!” Matt says, jerking away. “I can do it.”
She hands him the cotton and watches him apply the alcohol.
“How’d this happen?” she says.
“I was running and I fell.”
“Runnin’ to, or runnin’ from?” she mutters. She tries to study Matt’s face but he’s looking down, blowing his hands. She applies ointment, then reaches for the roll of gauze.
“No!” he says, turning away. “Just Band-aids. I can do it. I can do it.”
She hands him the box of Band-aids.
“They’ve already said grace by now,” she says, watching him work. He doesn’t look at her.
She sighs. “Well, when yer through, git yerself down to supper. I’m a-goin’ on down.”
But, she doesn’t move.
Matt looks at her and he knows that she knows. Just like always.
Butch Baker opens the bathroom door and yells in, “Hey y’all, c’mon out! Mister Logan wants us all out here!”
Matt and the others finish and gather near the entrance of the Big Boys’ dormitory where Superintendent Logan waits across from Mrs. Crow. Logan is a lean middle-aged balding man with thick dark eyebrows and sunken eyes. Mrs. Crow is petite and prim in a print dress, her hair freshly colored and permed. She stands with arms folded across her chest, scanning the group.
“Danny, pull them pants up,” she says. “Tuck in yer shirt, Joey.”
They promptly do as they’re told.
The oldest and largest, Rope, Whitey and Nomilk, seize chairs at the study table while the younger boys lean against the walls, radiators and window sills. At thirteen Matt is near the middle, age-wise, and small. All are in their church clothes. Shoes are shined. Jackets and sport coats are unbuttoned or slung over shoulders. Ties loosened or removed.
Logan looks them over and begins, “Boys, y’all know the Trinity Optimist Club sponsored our championship basketball team last year. I’m happy to announce that they’ll be now sponsoring a Junior Optimist Club here at the children’s home.”
As he speaks Ray Logan’s eyes radiate the warmth and confidence of a long career in social work. He was clerk of the juvenile court before promotion last year to superintendent at the Home.
“You boys’r very lucky that these wonderful people are volunteering their time,” he says. “You will meet down in the rumpus room every Tuesday at seven-thirty for about an hour. Your first meeting is day after tomorrow. There’ll be a speech contest. Raise your hand if you want to be in a speech contest.”
Not a hand goes up.
“Well, give it some serious thought. Abraham Lincoln was a great speaker”—he pumps is fist—“and even he had to start somewhere.”
The boys’ faces are blank as Logan explains that attendance is encouraged but voluntary and everyone should be mindful of their manners.
“I’m certain I’ll be hearing nothing but good reports on all y’all. Am I right?”
“Yes sir,” voices reply.
“Good. Ya’ll will benefit greatly from your participation. Are there any questions?”
A lanky blonde fifteen-year-old says, “What’s an oppy, opty…, you know?” He looks around and grins as boys nudge and snicker.
“Op--ti--mist,” Logan smiles. “Nomilk, you long drink o’ water, I should have expected that question. An optimist is, well, …a person who looks on the bright side of things and always hopes for the best. Phil McDougal, the president-elect, will be here Tuesday night, and you can ask him all the questions you want. Y’all pay close attention. He’ll teach you a lot.”
“Sounds like school,” Butch mutters, followed by more snickering.
After lights-out Matt lies in his bunk unable to sleep, watching cars come and go out on the highway. His sore muscles and bandaged hands are painful reminders of Aunty’s words during visitation this afternoon about Troy not wanting someone else’s kids. And there’s his father’s message in the letter Anne burned: You’re better off where you are. Words from a father he’s never seen. And Mommy’s whiskey breath words from long ago: You kids aren’t going to ruin my young life. I’m gonna live high, love hard and die young! She’d laughed when she said it.
So many words. And they won’t go away.
For a while Matt watches the cars going back and forth. He tries to remember what he might have done to make his mother not want him. But there’s only Troy. And there’s nothing he can do about Troy.
Matt pokes at the chain links holding up the mattress above him where John Nesbitt used to sleep. His eyes follow a pair of headlights until they blur into taillights. Then back again with a pair coming the other way. How did John get adopted? He got noticed. He stuck out in some way. A speech contest, why not? Teenagers don’t usually get adopted, but if he won, maybe…?
The rumpus room in the basement below the Little Boys’ dormitory is used mostly for Scout meetings. Except for the visitors’ lounge, it has the only polished wood floor on the premises. When Matt and some of the others wander down on Tuesday evening, the ping pong table has been pushed into a corner and folding chairs are grouped facing two easels. From one hangs a large blue banner with “Optimist International” in large yellow letters. On the other is a poster titled: The Optimist Creed. Matt takes a front row seat with Joey and begins reading:
1-to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
2-to talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet…
A thin middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed moustache enters and says, “Good evening everyone. Please take a seat. My name is Phil McDougal. You may call me Mister McDougal.” He speaks in a clear commanding voice and his dark eyes twinkle as they search among the group of curious faces. Matt is alert and attentive, fascinated by the first moustache he’s ever seen.
“I am President-elect of the Trinity Optimist Club,” McDougal continues. “We meet every Wednesday morning downtown. A President-elect becomes president when the current president’s term expires. Our current president is Gordon Chandler.”
McDougal has each boy stand and introduce himself, then goes on to explain the benefits of membership and what is expected of a Junior Optimist. He holds up a slim pamphlet and announces that meetings will be conducted according to Robert’s Rules of Order. He points to the poster, “This is our creed,” he says, “a set of rules we Optimists pledge to live by. Memorizing the Optimist Creed is a requirement for membership. We will discuss two lines from the Creed at each meeting until we’ve covered them all thoroughly.”
McDougal then announces the oratorical contest. Participants must memorize and recite The Preamble to the constitution, The Gettysburg Address and a 300-word poem, “If,” by Rudyard Kipling. Only then will they be allowed to enter the contest. He distributes a folder to each boy containing mimeographs of the material to be memorized.
“The winner of the contest will go on to represent us in the local and regional contests,” he says. “And if you win there, the finals in Ohio.”
He then breaks the Preamble down into phrases that they all repeat in unison until the entire piece is covered.
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
By the end of the meeting most of the boys, including Matt, have memorized the Preamble. Matt is intrigued by the challenge of the Kipling poem and the Gettysburg Address, which are much longer than the Bible scripture he won awards for memorizing in Vacation Bible School. Week after week, from February through April he applies himself, eagerly participating and attending all the meetings. As the assignments get tougher, several boys lose interest and drop out.
On the playground one sunny afternoon a Hispanic boy with thick-rimmed glasses stands before Matt, Joey and Butch sitting atop a picnic table. “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew, to serve your turn long after they are gone,” Felicio expounds, spreading his arms. “And so, uh …,” he hesitates, laughing, “I forget!”
“And so hold on,” Matt says, “when there is nothing in you, except the Will which says to them, ‘Hold on!’”
Felicio lunges at Matt, thrusting a cupped hand in his face. “Here, speak into the magic microphone!”
Matt pulls away laughing as Felicio lunges again, his hand cupped around an up-thrust finger imitating a penis. “Speak! Speak into the magic mic!”
Matt dodges and jumps to the ground facing the table. “If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or talk with kings—nor lose the common touch. If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you but none too much!”
Nomilk grabs Felicio, pulls his jacket over his head and puts him in a headlock. Everyone laughs as he spins him ‘round and ‘round.
“Hold off! Unhand me, graybeard loon!” Felicio says in a muffled voice. “My glasses! Hey! My glasses!”
Week after week the boys compete in the rumpus room. Matt carries the badly worn folder of material with his schoolbooks. At night in his bunk before sleep he recites in silence, squinting at the papers in the glow of the street lamps. Kipling’s poem is even harder than The Gettysburg Address, but Matt is excited by the challenge and the encouragement from Mc Dougal.
“Felicio’s your only competition,” Joey says one day.
“I think you’re right,” Matt says. “He goes to Catholic school. He can quote Shakespeare.”
“Yeah, but he clowns around. He’s not serious enough to win.”
Ultimately Joey’s right. It’s no contest. Matt memorizes and delivers the three-minute speech with machine-like perfection and will give the speech downtown at the Trinity Optimist Club.
On a Wednesday morning the first week in May, Matt dresses in his Sunday best—a white shirt and tie, slacks and a dark sport coat with sleeves too short. In his pocket is a note with permission for being late to school. He’s watching from a window overlooking the parking lot when a maroon and white ‘59 DeSoto with enormous tailfins drives up and parks. When Matt sees Mc Dougal he races down with his schoolbooks.
In the car Mc Dougal introduces Matt to Gordon Chandler, the smiling grey-haired man at the wheel. The interior reeks of cigar, reminding Matt of the creepy Superintendent Lovejoy. In the back seat Matt opens a window and leans back on the vinyl upholstery with his arms spread wide, feeling important. They turn onto East Lancaster and as they accelerate past the 312 Club Matt turns around and watches it shrink in the rear window.
In the basement meeting room of the hotel Matt is struck by the red brocade walls and crystal chandeliers, the China tableware and the muffled conversation—such a contrast with the green plaster walls, pastel plastic plates and noise of the orphanage dining room. A dozen men in suits mill around a long table covered with white linen. It’s the first time Matt has seen a buffet. He watches the men for clues of what to do as they line up and serve themselves from heated metal trays of scrambled eggs, grits, biscuits, bacon and sausage. Over the din of voices Matt hears someone refer to Gordon Chandler and his wife as a “childless couple.” He hears it twice, but the words don’t click. His mind is on the speech he’s about to give.
After filling his plate and taking a seat, Matt watches in wonder as a dark-skinned man in a starched white jacket works his way toward him and offers coffee.
“Coffee?” the man says, smiling, showing a golden tooth. Matt looks up and nods and the man fills his cup with steaming brew, then offers a sweating silver pitcher. “Will you have cream?”
The men joke around and talk about basketball teams—TCU, SMU, Baylor, Texas, Rice. What could be so important about basketball? He plays it every day. Gordon Chandler calls the meeting to order, rapping repeatedly with his gavel on the wooden lectern at his table. Two men continue talking basketball.
“Mr. Sargent-at-arms,” Chandler says, gesturing in mock seriousness. “Will you kindly collect a fine from those two rowdies down there?” There’s laughter as a man approaches the two with a metal teapot, rattling the coins inside and clicking a cap pistol welded to the handle. There’s more laughter as the men toss in quarters.
Everyone stands for a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Optimist Creed. Old Business is brief. Matt’s speech is the only item of New Business. He can barely see over the lectern, so Chandler sets it on the floor. Matt’s mouth goes dry. “Mister President,” he croaks.
“Here, wet your whistle,” Chandler says, handing him a glass of water.
Matt drinks and starts again. “Mister President, honored guests and fellow Optimists—What is an optimist? They say an optimist is a man who on a salary of twenty dollars a week marries a woman who loves children.” The room fills with laughter. He relaxes. The waiter winks and flashes him a golden smile.
Matt completes the speech in a clear strong voice, without hesitation, and at the end he relishes the enthusiastic applause and back-slapping. The feeling of triumph is strange, like being in a movie. But he did the work. He studied. He practiced. It’s real.
After the meeting McDougal gives Matt a ride to school in a shiny new Chevrolet. He daydreams, wondering how being an optimist can make you successful. It must. Mr. Chandler and Mr. McDougal both have nice new cars.
As they pass the 312 Club Matt can’t resist turning to watch it again. The Home is just around the curve.
After his speech at the Optimist Club comes the district competition at the Fort Worther Hotel the following week. It’s a large conference room with an audience of fifty. Again Matt delivers flawlessly, winning the right to speak at the Oklahoma City regionals in two weeks.
Saturday, the children and staff from the Home are Gordon Chandler’s guests at a picnic and fundraiser at his country club on Eagle Mountain Lake. Chandler’s DeSoto arrives at the Home after the others have left in the orphanage bus. Matt is ready and waiting at the window and rushes down.
“Matty, I’d like you to meet my wife, Hazel,” Chandler says, as an attractive brunette steps out of the car.
Blushing, the boy timidly reaches for her extended hand. “I’m pleased to meet you” he says. Her hand is warm and soft and there’s a wisp of perfume.
“I’m very glad to meet you too, Matty,” she says. “I’ve heard so many good things about you. Here, let me fix that tie.”
She steps closer and reaches for the knot. Matt looks away.
The outing at the country club is a major event, with croquet, swim and canoe races and horseshoe pitching. Barbecue, beans and potato salad are served outdoors on linen tablecloths. After the meal, club members lead the way to the docks to treat the children to boat rides. The Chandlers’ gleaming Chris Craft runabout idles dockside. Hazel makes room for Matt next to her. He is again overwhelmed by her closeness.
“Hold on!” she says, tugging him close as the lines are tossed. He steals a look at her as the engine roars and the boat surges forward.
“They say an optimist is a man who, on a salary of twenty dollars a week, marries a woman who loves children.” The hotel meeting room erupts with laughter at the opening of Matt’s memorized three-minute speech.
The scene from Oklahoma City replays in Matt’s head as a blur of blackeyed susans and bluebonnets flows past his window. Queasy from Chandler’s cigar smoke, he rides in back with his face near an air conditioning duct. The three-hour drive north had been smooth and comfortable in the big De Soto. Now they’re southbound, returning to Fort Worth.
“Man, that’s a powerful engine,” McDougal says, stroking his moustache.
“Sixty miles an hour and you don’t even feel it,” Chandler says. He looks into the rearview mirror. “Matty, you did great. You were the youngest one in the competition, and I heard so many remarks about how good your speech was. What did you think, Phil?”
“I thought he gave one of the absolute finest speeches,” McDougal says. “What’d you expect, Gordon? He’s done it perfectly every time—at the Optimist Club, then at the Fort Worther Hotel and now at the regionals. He didn’t win this time, but for a thirteen year-old, why, we could not have expected anything better.”
The car slows approaching a blue-roofed metal building. “Here’s Stuckey’s,” Chandler says. “Time for a pit stop.”
The three travelers go inside while the Texaco attendant services the car. After using the restroom, Matt browses the aisles stocked with snacks and souvenirs. Eventually he makes a purchase and returns to the car.
Back on the road McDougal says, “Matt, I noticed you bought something. What’d you get?”
“It’s for Mrs. Chandler.” Matt hands him the bag.
McDougal takes the bag and pulls out a red clay vase painted with colorful Native American artwork. “Well, would you look at this. Hazel will be very pleased. Won’t she, Gordon?”
Chandler glances over and takes the vase. “Why, it’s beautiful, Matty, but you really shouldn’t have spent your money. Three dollars would have bought a lot of candy.”
“It’s okay,” Matt says, looking at Chandler in the rearview mirror. “I like her. Mrs. Chandler is nice.”
Chandler hands the vase back to McDougal. “I know Hazel will be pleased. It’s very thoughtful of you, Matt,” Chandler says as he and McDougal exchange approving looks. Chandler adjusts the wing window so the smoke is pulled outside.
When they drop off McDougal, Matt moves to the front seat. It’s after six as Chandler guides the big car onto East Lancaster Avenue toward the children’s home. “Will you give my present to Mrs. Chandler?” Matt says.
“Why, you can give it to her yourself, Matty. I’m going to swing by our house so you can do that and we can tell Hazel how well you did today. We’re not far from where you live. You can meet Candy, our cocker spaniel. Do you like dogs?”
“Yeah!” Matt says. “Dogs‘r neat. We had one at the Home for a while—a German shepherd. His name was Prince. He was our mascot.”
“A German shepherd, my-my, that’s quite a dog. What happened to Prince?”
“It was when Mr. Lovejoy was superintendent. He called the pound to take Prince away.”
“Oh, what a shame. Did he bite someone? Was Prince mean?”
“No sir.” Matt pauses, thinking. “It was Mr. Lovejoy that was mean.”
“Hmmm,” Chandler says, grinding out his cigar in the ashtray. “How do you like Mr. Logan?”
“Mr. Logan’s great. He’s not mean at all.”
Soon the car pulls into the gravel driveway of the Chandlers’ home, a sprawling single-story brick house in a neighborhood of similar homes, all with neatly trimmed St. Augustine lawns and scatterings of small oak trees.
Inside, Chandler calls, “Hazel! I’m home. Guess who I brought with me!” The muffled barking of a dog comes from behind her as Hazel appears in the hallway. She looks surprised, then delighted on recognizing Matt.
“Matty! Hello and welcome to our home!” Hazel gives her husband a kiss on the cheek, then guides Matt into the den as Chandler disappears down the hallway.
“Take a seat, Matty,” she says. “Would you like some peanut butter cookies and milk?”
“Sure!” Matt sits on a soft chair. He’s ill at ease among the fine furniture and delicate surroundings. Through the glass patio door he watches Chandler pet an excited black cocker spaniel.
Soon Hazel brings in a tray with cookies and glasses of iced tea and milk and sets it on the coffee table. “Dig in,” she says, arranging the tray in front of him. “You must be exhausted. That was such a long trip. It took the whole day?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Matt says, reaching for a cookie.
Hazel looks toward Chandler in the doorway. “How’d it go in Oklahoma City?”
“It was a long day, Dear.” Chandler slides the door shut. “But Matty did great, just great. Gave that speech perfectly. Didn’t forget a single word. He didn’t win this time, but he was up against high school-ers two and three years older. We’re all extremely proud of him.”
“That’s terrific, Matty,” Hazel says. “Did you have fun? Did you enjoy yourself?”
Matt swallows, holding half a cookie in one hand and the bag with the vase in the other. “Sure. It was easy. I liked it a lot.”
Chandler winks at Matt. “Hazel, Matty brought you something.”
Hazel leans forward, “What do you mean? For me?” Blushing, she brings her hand to her chest.
Matt takes out the vase and hands it to her. “Real Indians made it,” he says.
“Oh, my!” Hazel holds up the red clay vase and studies the intricate designs. “It’s beautiful! Thank you Matty! Such a nice surprise. Oh look, there’s something inside.” She reaches in and pulls out a small photograph.
“Well! How precious! …A picture of you, Matty. How thoughtful!” She holds the picture up to the light. It’s one of his school pictures. In it he’s wearing his favorite red white and blue sweater, a present from Aunt Carrie. The Chandlers exchange looks of surprise.
“Matty, would you like to see our back yard and meet Candy?” Chandler says.
“Go ahead and finish your cookie,” Hazel says.
Matt bolts the remainder of the cookie, chasing it with milk. Outside on the patio Chandler introduces him to Candy, then goes in, sliding the door closed behind him.
Filtered sunlight glints off the fine lazy fingers of a distant lawn sprinkler as Matt kneels to pet the dog. Candy licks and nuzzles him. “Look, a squirrel!” Matt says. Candy barks and dashes to the end of his thin chain as a grey squirrel climbs down a trunk, hops across the lawn to pick up an acorn and scampers up another tree. Matt smells honeysuckle and sees the small pale yellow flowers on a trellis next to the house. “Hey, lucky you, Candy, you got honeysuckle,” he says. He sees there are no fences separating the yards. “How come there’s no fences, Candy?” The dog cocks his head and stares at him.
Matt turns and waves to the Chandlers through the sliding door. They wave back, smiling. “They’re talking about us, aren’t they Candy?” Matt says, hugging the dog. He throws a stick and Candy races after it towing his chain.
That night Matt lies in his bunk reflecting on the day—the car trip, dining in a restaurant, the speech contest, and that beautiful back yard with Candy and the squirrel. Mr. Chandler’s nice. So is Mrs. Chandler. They seem to like him. They don’t have any kids. Maybe a teenager can get adopted. It would be nice, living in that honeysuckle house and having a room instead of a locker in a dormitory. He’d get to play with Candy every day and have peanut butter cookies.
But, what if they don’t want him?
Monday After school Mrs. Crow sends word that Mr. Logan wants him in his office, so Matt heads downstairs, wondering what for. It can’t be good. At the door he hesitates, biting his nails. Through the smoked glass panel he sees the superintendent sitting back with his hands behind his head gazing out over the stoops.
Sensing the boy, Logan swivels around. “Come on in, Mister Speechmaker,” the gaunt balding man says, opening the door, smiling. “Congratulations, Matty.” They shake hands. “Have a seat.” Logan motions toward the two oak armchairs.
Matt eases into one, stiffening at the faint smell of cigar. Lovejoy’s been gone almost a year but his unmistakable stink is here. On the wall behind Logan is a large framed print of Jesus gazing upward, inscribed: Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not. That same Jesus was there when Deacon Lovejoy had Matt stretched across that same desk whaling on him for folding bits of laundry wrong.
Logan’s long bony fingers nudge the door closed. “How was school today?”
Matt flinches. “Uh…, okay, I guess.”
“Matty, I want you to know how very proud everyone is of your success with the Optimist Club speech contest. You’re doing well in school. You’re in the marching band. You’re never in trouble. Miz Crow says you do your chores and never complain. Dorothy and I just couldn’t be more proud of both you and your sister, Anne. I want to thank you for being such a good boy.”
Matt shrugs and relaxes his grip on the chair.
Logan leans in and lowers his voice. “But, there’s another reason I asked you down here, Matty. You’re fond of Mr. and Mrs. Chandler, aren’t you?”
“Yeah.” Matt nods. “They’re really nice.”
“Well, you should be proud to know they’ve asked about adopting you.”
Matt smiles, blushes and looks away.
“But… , I have some sad news, Matty. I checked your file and I had to tell the Chandlers that, well, you cannot be adopted.”
Matt blinks, then blinks again.
“Matty, when you came here the judge made an agreement with your mother that if she would not contest the court’s guardianship you and your sister would be restricted from adoption. I’m, sorry.” Logan swallows hard. His chair squeaks as he turns toward the window.
He takes a breath, then turns around. “You’re a good boy, Matty. We’re proud of you. Keep up the good work… .”
Matt lurches up and out without hearing the rest.
That evening Matt misses supper. He lies in his bunk watching the cars out on East Lancaster, remembering Mrs. Chandler’s smile, her perfume and her arm on his shoulder, remembering Candy jumping up to lick his face, remembering “BLOCKED” stamped in big black letters on the folder on Logan’s desk. He doesn’t make it down for Scouts, but when the meeting breaks up he is sitting on the stairs facing the door to the rumpus room.
Howard Wellstone, the scoutmaster, comes out. “Bird! We missed you at the meeting,” Stoney says. “Sorry you didn’t feel well. You okay?”
Matt slumps back on the stairs. “Yeah, I guess,” he says, looking down.
Stoney puts down his backpack and sits next to him. “Come on, Bird, what’s eatin’ ya? You’ve never missed a meeting before. We covered knot-tying. You’ve almost earned that merit badge.”
Matt tells him about the Chandlers and what Mr. Logan said about not being adoptable. Matt gets to his feet. “How can they do that?”
Stoney gets up and steps into the laundry room. “Come in here,” he says, turning on the light. He shuts the door behind Matt, then puts a hand on his shoulder and speaks in a voice muffled by the dangling rows of damp clothing.
“Look at me,” Stoney says.
Matt looks up at him.
“Did you ever think that maybe your mother loves you—that she didn’t want to give up hope of returning for you?”
Matt looks down, then back up at Stoney. “It’s been four years!”
“Things happen. Life’s not always fair.”
“You can say that again.” Matt pulls away.
“Look here,” Stoney says, gently shaking him with both hands. “It’s not your fault. And maybe it’s not the fault of your mother, either. But you got a raw deal, for sure. All you kids here got one helluva rotten deal and there’s nothing that can ever make that right. What’s important is what you’re gonna do about it. Understand?”
Matt looks away, thinking, then shakes his head. “No.”
“It will take a lifetime to understand why you ended up in this place. But God knows it had nothin’ to do with you. And yes, it hurts. But pain is just a messenger telling you how strong you have to be.
“It’s a matter of choice, Matty. You can let it drag you down or you can use it to fire up your furnace. Now get this into your head: when you get up each day, make the choice to put your mind on something good. Help a friend. Create something. I guarantee you’ll feel better. Be thankful you have a safe place to call home, decent food, a warm bed and clean clothes. Millions of kids don’t have near that. I saw it in the Philippines during the war.”
Matt hops onto the table to sit eye-level with the dark stocky man who taught him so much about surviving in the wild.
“And I promise you,” Stoney says, “this won’t be the only raw deal you come across. The road ahead will have all sorts of twists and turns and dead-ends. But what matters is how you let the obstacles in your path affect you. Take charge of your life. Get behind the wheel and drive.
“Now, I gotta go. The family’s waiting out in the car.” Stoney picks up his pack. “Remember, you have a choice each and every day how to live your life. Don’t let anyone or anything take that choice away.”
Matt follows him out of the hall of humid laundry and up the stairway.
The next day Matt is reading in the empty bathtub as Joey saunters in. “What ‘cha readin’ now, Bird?” Joey says.
“White Fang.” Matt keeps reading.
Joey goes to the window and tiptoes to look out. “How come you always read here, in the tub room?”
“It’s cool. It’s quiet. And nobody bugs me. ‘Cept you.”
Joey combs his hair with his fingers. “It’s raining. You can smell it.” He turns. “You hear ‘bout Nesbitt?”
Matt looks up at him. “John? No. What about him?”
“He’s coming back. TC said so.”
Matt sits up straight.“You’re kidding. How come?”
“I dunno. Guess the adoption didn’t work out.”
There’s a rumble of distant thunder and rain drums the roof of the workshop outside. “It’s coming down hard,” Joey says. He closes the window halfway, slides down the wall and props his feet against the tub.
“I nearly got adopted,” Matt says, folding the book. “I’ll tell you about it if you won’t say anything.”
Joey promises and Matt tells him about the Chandlers.
“I never heard of not being adoptable,” Joey says. “It’s not fair. You won the speech contest! You worked ten times as hard as anyone else! The Chandlers are nice people. You could’ve had a car in a couple of years, a Corvette even. You could’ve been Mathew Chandler instead of... .”
“Okay!” Matt raises his hands. “They were nice. But that’s how it is.” He shrugs. “I learned some stuff. I won a blue ribbon.”
Joey rolls his eyes. “A book marker. You won a friggin’ book marker! Well, maybe your mother will come after all.”
Matt looks at him straight on. “Forget it,” he says. “If my parents wanted me I’d’ve been with one o’ them a long time ago. Some parents are just messed up is all.”
Matt looks away, then back again. “You wanna know another secret?”
“What?” Joey says.
“Promise not to tell?”
“Swear, an’ mean it.”
“Okay, I swear.” Joey waves the Scout sign.
Matt takes a breath and lets it out. “I saw my mother giving herself an abortion with a coat hanger.”
“She… ? What is an abortion?”
“It’s like when she kills the egg that’s growing inside of her before it hatches into a baby, Doofus. Now shut up and let me finish.
“One morning I heard this noise and I go in and she’s sitting on the bed on a towel sopping with blood. She has this awful look on her face. The noise I heard was the hanger banging the floor. She said for me to go tell Anne to call Troy. But I couldn’t move. I just stood there.”
“Holy crap’s right. She passed out. They took her to the hospital. I’ll never forget that look on her face and that smell of blood. She could’ve died.”
“Ho-ly crap.” Joey squirms and puts his head in his hands. He looks up. “Why’d she do it?”
“Anne said Mommy wanted to get pregnant so Troy would marry her. It was his, but he said to get rid of it.
“Look Joey, all I know is it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. This place is a dog pound for kids whose parents don’t want them. Look, do your parents ever show up on visitation day?”
“Mommy did, once.”
“They ever send you a card or a present on your birthday or Christmas?
Joey’s eyes grow large. “No.” He looks down.
“Well mine neither. Just my Great-aunt Carrie. And a few times Uncle Mikey sent me a model airplane kit. But you know what? I don’t care about any of that. Not anymore. I’m gonna be somebody. I want Miz Crow and Stoney and my teachers to be proud of me. And the guys at the Optimist Club.
“So I’m stuck here ‘til I’m out o’ high school. Big whup.” He rolls his eyes. “Five more years in this, …this palace.” He waves an arm and fakes a smile.
Joey looks at him, then up at the window. The rain has stopped. “You could run away,” he says.
“Yeah, run. Run to where?” Matt sits up a little. “But it’s cool. If I can stay here four years I can stay here nine years. I’m already half-way almost. I’m an optimist, right? Promise yourself to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind; da-da, da-da.” Matt waggles the book.
You’re kiddin’,” Joey says.
“Nah. Kids with parents are spoiled. Me, I don’t have to depend on anyone for anything. If I screw up, it’s on me. Nobody to cut me slack and no one but me to blame. That’s how it is.”
Joey studies Matt’s face, absorbing the words.
“When you think about it,” Matt says, “we were lucky. We’re not stuck with messed-up parents telling us what’s what. All we gotta do is watch guys like Mr. Mc Dougal and Mr. Chandler and pick the best ways of doing things. An’ if we make something of ourselves it’s because we earned it, not because our parents gave us everything.”
A shadow clouds the doorway and a beaming freckled face with tousled red hair peers in.
“Nesbitt! You creep!” Matt says, dropping the book. “How come you’re here?”
Joey and Matt scramble to their feet and they laugh, poke and jostle each other. Butch, Ingstrom and Nomilk enter the bathroom and wrestle John to the floor. John is muscular but he hardly resists. His brother TC comes in and joins in tickling and holding John down. John laughs so hard his face turns red, almost hiding his freckles. It goes on for a couple minutes, everyone dog-piling John. Felicio comes in and jumps on the pile.
Mrs. Crow cracks open the bathroom door and calls in, “This ‘ere bathroom’s not a place to congregate. It’s quit rainin’. The sun’s a-shinin’. You boys git ‘cher business done and git on outside where ye’ belong.”
“Yes Ma’am,” Joey says.
When they let him up John’s cheek has imprints of the floor tiles. “I wanted to come back,” he says, replacing his glasses. “I didn’t like being away from my brother an’ I told ‘em so.”
“I heard you had your own room and a dog and everything,” Butch says.
“Yeah,” John says. “Toby was a good dog, too, part collie. But my brother was here.” He chuckles. “’An’ y’all, too.” He pokes Joey. “Besides, all those people wanted was a slave to work on their farm. They had me milking eight cows every morning and shoveling manure and lugging big ole heavy bags o’ feed. I didn’t mind the work so much as them ordering me around.”
Nomilk says, “Ew, cow tits.”
“We saved your bunk for you,” Matt says, “but Ingstrom got your locker.”
“You can have it back if you want,” Ingstrom says.
A few days after school is out, Matt strolls down to the pecan orchard. The crepe myrtles and roses are in bloom. It’s sunny and hot but the orchard floor is cool under a new canopy of leaves. Birds are chirping.
Matt watches a bluejay swoop down with a grasshopper in its beak. It drops the insect near a smaller jay that’s behaving strangely—stooping, shivering its wings. After a moment the parent jay picks up the bug and drops it again. The smaller jay continues to beg. The parent jay watches, then flies away. The juvenile squawks and squawks, but eventually hops over to consume the six-legged meal.
Matt hears the scream of a power saw and goes through a break in the fence to investigate. Construction of an apartment complex is underway across the street. The sweet smell of freshly sawed pine is in the air. Two workers carry a sheet of plywood toward a pair of saw horses. Matt takes a deep breath and walks toward a man with his hands on his hips watching them work.
“’Scuse me,” Matt says, approaching.
The man turns with a look of surprise.
“Are you the boss? I need a summer job. I’m a really good worker.”
The man studies Matt’s skinny arms. “What can you do?”
“I do chores every day over at the Home.” Matt motions toward the hill.
The man glances at the large building and nods. “What kind of chores?”
“I take out the trash. Do floors. You know, janitorial stuff. Yard work. Sometimes I drive the riding mower.” It is a lie about the mower but he knows he can do it. He notices the sound of hammering. “I can hammer nails. I can do anything.”
The man looks at the mountain of construction debris clogging the courtyard, then smiles at Matt. “I’m Ed Caldwell. I may have something for you. Pays seventy-five cents an hour. What’s your name?”
Matt reaches for the offered hand.
# # #
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