Boys flying out slammed doors, diving head first into new snow, red faces, gummed grins, the same blinking child-eyes, the same tears. Years later when I hold my own boys I can still feel splayed limbs in the midst of a growth spurt, hear the fevered wake of a stampede of wild boys rounding the corner. Remembering not so much the sounds of laughter, more the sounds of evening when exhaustion has gentled the fight inside of them. Night sounds of measured breathing and intermittent coughing echo off concrete walls and concrete floors of dormitory four, home to twenty-three boys, ages eight to eighteen, asleep under army issue blankets with the air just cold enough for you to see your breath. I sit in the common area wrapped in a down ski jacket, lapsing between the drone of the last working black and white television in existence and tunneled, fitful sleep. Earl lolls across from me, openly snoring, tree trunk arms folded across his bayed chest, his massive belly rising up-down like Jack in the Beanstalk's giant.
From the room off to my left, a sudden "Aguuuuu, ah, ah, ah, ageeeee." Earl and I both jump, nearly crack skulls trying to push the sleep from our brains. "Paper, scissors, rock," Earl rasps, and we go at it. Earl wins. He heaves his great hulking form back onto the couch, sinking the rotted springs almost to the floor. I throw a cushion at his razored head but he barely stirs. Earl's been here a long, long time. Long enough to love these boys like blood, making a point to sandwich them in a headlock once a day so he can plant his lips upon their hard heads. Strong enough to take on even the biggest boy and throw him up in the air as if he is nothing but a plumped pillow. Earl wears clothes special-ordered from the Big & Tall catalog—overalls and jeans the width of a door, so much a part of this institution I can't imagine working with anyone else. The boys know not to push him too far. Strength is something they can see, something they can gauge. And in their breakable world tangibles mean everything. You can't just say that someday something is going to happen. You have to prove it. Too many adults have made too many promises. As far as they are concerned—if you can't touch it, it doesn't exist.
Orrin is just the opposite. Nothing in his world is real, therefore magnifying his capacity to visualize. His senses react in direct polarity to the way earth's gravity pulls at us and maintains our perspective at eye level. His doctor tells me Orrin's vision is like the continuum of space. What Orrin sees, he says, is the brightest star in the furthest galaxy right here in this room. I think—there has to be a way to help Orrin see the world the way the rest of the boys do; I want conformity on my own terms, to play with this child's life. I can't think of him without feeling the force of his breath on my face, like a dog's panting—with Orrin, the concept of personal space remains foreign.
I stagger into Orrin's room—he's the only boy to have his own room—but that's because he's a bed wetter, not because of his nocturnal outbursts. Everyone is used to them. The other boys just turn over and go back to sleep. "Hey there, buddy. How you doing?" I make my voice soothing, rub the small of his back, check my watch. Almost 3 a.m. Another four hours until our relief arrives. God, sometimes the nights drag on until I think I'll go batty with the monotony. It's not like we have all-night movies either. The TV screen turns to snow after the late late show, usually a cheap slasher film from the eighties with some beautiful blond lying in a pool of blood.
Orrin rocks back and forth on his bed, dressed in donated Where's Waldo PJ's two sizes too small, knees tucked under his stubble chin, arms around his legs in a vice grip, his breathing distressed. He's gangly and large for fifteen, physically more a man than a boy. His baby face is gone, though his little boy hair falls yellow and shaped like a bowl—and in its place too many features at odds with his intellect. There's a certain sour smell attached to him, like mother's milk that has dried. Earl helps him to shave, but some days it's just not worth the trouble and on Earl's days off it doesn't get done at all. He emits the frenetic energy of a toddler, fingers fluttering off to either side of his face as tiny winged birds. Rocking is as much a part of Orrin's world as breathing. He uses it as a form of expression. This is scared rocking. I can tell by the way his eyes travel up and down walls, searching for some entity unseen by the rest of us.
"Want Monster Puppet to chase them away?" I ask.
Orrin rocks vigorously.
Monster Puppet is Orrin's imaginary friend who protects him from the rest of the bad monsters. His teacher has helped him to cut the felt pieces, to place the glue stick under two black button eyes, to fashion a wide empty green mouth—a hand puppet to act out all the terrible things that have happened in Orrin's life. Orrin can decimate MIT's mathematics department, but his reading comprehension levels off at the second grade. Then there are other issues. Emotional issues. Orrin has a hard time with them all. He sees things that others can only guess at, things that baffle the experts, focusing for the moment on some point off in the darkness. I know enough not to turn on the light. The shock of it could send him into a fit. He does better with subtle changes, a gradual melding from one state to the next, as you would with a young child who wants the night-light on before he goes back to sleep. With Orrin, I am his night-light. He responds to my voice by inserting his head into the crook of my arm, burrowing in one soft breast for warmth, even then the tic of his head in rapid mini-motion from side to side.
"Here's Monster Puppet. Where's Hand Puppet?" I try to help him along.
"The hand who cried monster!" he cries, grabbing for Monster Puppet. "I will scare Mr. Mayor, he's crying for his mommy, all scared, scared his pants off walking in the forest one day now! Help! Help! The monster is biting my head off—where's that monster—and I'm lookin', and I'm lookin'—now don't cry monster, save the people of the forest, SUCKER! All right at 4 o'clock, help, help, monster eating my head off, here's the monster, all right, don't cry, he is up to no good." Then more silent rocking and suddenly, "Alisha!" with a broken sob.
"Yes, Orrin. I'm here. You've had a bad dream. Everything's okay now. Go back to sleep."
He lies down while I pull the covers to his chin. His eyes are wide open, but I know after I leave the room they will automatically close. The same thing happens every night.
Rallings Country School is an isolated compound situated on one hundred cow acres in Massachusetts, with stark white concrete buildings making up the dormitories, cafeteria, and school. Cockroaches come out at night; the odor of sweat and male adolescent bodies and rotted fruit lingers around the dorm like stale perfume. Wards of the state. Disposable. Dreams of adoption, of families and a home lie abandoned, as a long ago loved but forgotten toy. A modern day Fagin's gang—street smart, cunning, and full of enough behavioral problems to warrant a full time staff psychologist. But there are times when a collective purity raises above the fray and in moments of weakness my eyes well. And I hope, dear God. And I teach them to pray.
Dr. Ackerman runs the school. There's a plaque hanging on his office wall—Don't Let Them Get To You. He takes it home with him at night.
Regulations posted in every room: square cubicles with steel bunk beds drilled into the floor, one closet, no door, and no doors to the rooms either. Minus the slammed fingers, kicked in closets, reciprocal accidents. The common room: vinyl spiked couches in a square around the television. The walls are bare, except for a tiny grotto someone hammered out years ago. The boys fill it with silk flowers stolen from the art room; a black plastic rosary hangs from a nail at its base. I ask them if they pray to it. They tell me it is their wishing well, a place of last resort.
Money is our biggest problem. At least once a week we receive a memo: Due to a lack of funds, ice cream sandwiches will no longer be served on Thursdays. We will be visiting Goodwill before the change in weather. Please make accurate lists of clothing items needed for your charges. This year's holiday party is sponsored by Pfizer, Inc. Keep in mind there will be one gift for each child. I wonder at the choice of gifts charity-minded people make. Each year I have to watch such barely contained excitement at seeing so many wrapped packages under our tree, and then weather the relaxed jaws when they discover their Christmas will again consist of a puzzle box with 2,799 pieces that form a picture of a puppy with a red ribbon they will never own.
It's hard to explain, it's not any one thing, more the cumulative effect. It pars you down, over time, to the bare essentials of living. Clothes, food, shelter. In each one of them, even the toughest, I feel it, especially at night. Darkness magnifies vulnerabilities—all that palpable neediness. So they grandstand and Dr. Long doles out Ritalin. He's methodical: try one thing, another, observe, form theory. And all the time Orrin's scars multiply, oozing and sore. Find me now. Find me perfect. But no one ever does.
I need Orrin Crooks to be the exception. I try. I bring in his Christmas sock and it's the envy of every boy in the dorm, a large red sock, stretched out in the toe so that it holds about ten pounds of candy. He's already counted it about fifty times and informs me he has 527 hard candies and 12 chocolates, which he covets, and I wonder if he'll ever get around to eating them. Orrin Crooks, a boy who spends his days rocking with his head against the wall, listening, a boy who understands finite mathematics, a fifteen year-old autistic, disposable child. I hand him a reindeer lollipop, and every day he waits for me to bring him another one. I bring him other little treats over the three years that I work there, but he still wants that same lollipop and always believes, despite assurances to the contrary, that I will bring him another-the antitheses of doubt. Doubting myself, I think, in self-conference, but not him, not the forces of nature in his vision. Orrin's sight, I call it, bestowing on him psychic powers.
Somehow Orrin finds something in me he needs. A boy who pulls at my arms, buries his head in my breasts, takes his long lean fingers and runs them over my face, then pushes a finger into my mouth until I swat him away, "That's enough!" laughing, half irritated. Dr. Long says he's never become attached to anyone like that before, not even Earl, his champion defender against all injustice, who carries him to bed over one shoulder when he gets so riled there's nothing to do but hold him down until he quiets.
Finding the quiet in Orrin. A challenge I take seriously given my newfound place in his world, which until now has only included puppets. When winter warms to mud-soaked fields, I take Orrin on long walks. He notices everything, his senses so fine-tuned he reaches out to touch the sky, sticks out his tongue to taste the blue. He knows these things are alive, separate from the tomb-like existence of his dorm and school. Out here he dances, sways and sings. Eyes racing the sun and moon.
"Run with me, Orrin!" I take his hand and we run to the field where the old retired quarter horses grazes. Reno, the oldest, white, except for his mane that is blotted with brown. So fat and lazy we can barely get him to trot over to us for a handful of carrots. As patient as a grandmother, Reno stands stock-still while I saddle him and tighten his girth, which barely fits round his swollen stomach. Orrin stands on a crate and manages to get one leg over while I shove him upward from below. Reno turns his head to look at us like we're a couple of fools, which we are, and waits for me to come down and lead him around the ring.
I lead Reno with Orrin perched on top like he's breaking the sound barrier, teeth barred with excitement. "Take it easy. Reno won't go fast. He's too old. Besides, I've got you."
Orrin grins down at me and gives Reno a good kick in the shanks. The surprised horse hesitates for an instant, then his training kicks in and he's off to a gentle canter before I have time to tighten the reigns. They leave me standing there mute. I watch through half-slit eyes, fully expecting Orrin to plot a surface dive into the dirt, but he hangs on with his thighs, arms straight up in the air, a primal sound rising from his throat. A powerful voice that says, here I am, here I am, I am here!
Late at night, when Orrin's monsters wake him, I sing him love songs from the radio. When his eyes close, I whisper, "I love you."
Earl and I make our rounds from one room to the next, fraudulent parents peering in on sleeping faces. Our eyes meet and I can hear Earl thinking. We feel it in the collective silence, hear it echoed in these hollow walls.
The staff psychologist runs Orrin's profile by me during our weekly progress reports, citing court orders as casually as a grocery list. I don't care, I want to yell over his patient drone. I don't care what he's done, who he's hurt, what he broke, where he ran. His family history reads like the Who's Who of a penal colony.
"Don't get too attached," says Dr. Long. "You've had some success with Orrin. Tell me about it." When I finish he leans back in his chair, chewing the tip of his pipe. "It may be that he understands more than we think. It's hard to say. Take a look at his chart. And—take it slow—okay?"
Earl shakes his head when I tell him. "I knew you was trouble the first time you walked through the door," he says in that deep rich baritone of his. "You think you're the first? They seen so many of you come and go, in their hearts they already said good-bye. One day things will get too messy; you'll say you can't take it anymore. Only they can't leave until they turn eighteen and even then they'll disappear with a hundred bucks and a suitcase. Maybe live in halfway house, get a five-dollar job, live hanging on the edge. If they can't make it they'll end up in prison. Nothing you or I can do to change it."
How do you rebuild a child bone for bone? Flush the inner recesses of his mind? The wind has died down with the biting damp as the sun traces the woods to a blue-white. I walk in Orrin's footprints, feel the need, somehow, to muddy the snow cover even less. We follow the bend in the road, framed by pilings of stone walls as old as the patriots. Wild deer fight out the winter on this land, starving, and with no one to feed them they've braved the schoolyard garbage more than once. An ancient Indian trout river winds its way through the pines, and it's a pretty walk this time of year. A word comes to mind-clean—and if there's one thing I've learned it's to savor the listening hour, as I watch Orrin skulk from one tree trunk to the next, ears on bark like a delicate piece of equipment listening for life. At his best, Orrin is always listening for life.
There's a time when you're too involved and you know it. The knowledge of it weighs on you, like the feel of a choke on a chain, giving you air and then taking it away just as you reach something interesting. Orrin's chart keeps me up nights. Keeps me up days too, when I should be sleeping. Interrupts the solace of dreams, hangs on like a bad seed, waits for me to take it up, and the more I refuse the more it clips me when I'm not looking. Finally, I give up. Wrest it back from the page and give it life. Earl is right. Not my finest moment.
The staff marks my last day on the calendar with a big X everyone understands but Orrin. Earl shows up that night with a large pink cake box and a case of Dr. Pepper, Orrin's favorite.
"She's not coming back," the boys will tell him. "She's never coming back, she's gone. Can't you understand that, Orrin!" They'll yell and snap their fingers at his head, but he will always believe I am coming back.
Nan Leslie's award winning fiction has been published in more than twenty
literary magazines. Her work is nominated for The Pushcart Prize. She is
the fiction editor of Able Muse and the assistant fiction editor of In Posse
Review. She also freelances, writing feature articles for such magazines as