It was 1968. Like a lot of seventeen-year-old males that summer, I was thinking about death. Not Bobby Kennedy’s or Martin Luther King’s. I was contemplating my own. I could feel my eighteenth birthday looming and I had to wonder if I’d spend my nineteenth in Vietnam, in Canada, in jail, or in the Great Hereafter. It was nearly the last mentioned, and not at the hands of the VC, either. I came this close to having my goozle slit right here at home in good old nothing-ever-happens Faelin, Indiana. But that was later.
I tried for a basket and missed, trotted half-heartedly after the ball, and caught it as it rolled to a stop against the fence. One good thing about playing alone on a day so hot the asphalt sucks at your sneakers: no razzing when you play like a stoned sloth.
The court ran along one side of the house, or Home or, as the Townies called it, The Orphanage. The official name was Faelin Municipal Children’s Refuge, making me, I guess, a refugee.
The parking lot ran along the opposite side, which is why I didn’t see the car that pulled in and parked. I wouldn’t have supposed it had anything to do with me, even if I’d seen it; I’d long since given up any hope of adoption. As soon as I turned eighteen, I’d have to leave, anyway. Probably go into the Service. Probably try for the Navy. With my dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes, I always kind of thought I’d look sharp in a white uniform.
I thought about that my last day at the Refuge, bouncing the ball across the court, not really practicing anything, just fooling around.
“Hey, Mitch!” I saw Jimmy Gassman’s features pressed against the screen of our first-floor bedroom. Jimmy, my roommate, was ten, and a first-class pest. “Mrs. Brandt wants you to get cleaned up and go to her office. There’s a lady in there!”
My heart did one of those flops like they talk about in True Romance comics. (Sometimes you get real desperate for reading material.) Like I said, I’d be leaving in a few months, and I’d been at the Refuge all my life; nobody had ever even taken me home for a month’s free trial, but I’d never given up hope. Kids can be so dumb. I mean, the cops found me in a dumpster. With my coloring, there was some speculation that I might not be white. Nobody in small-town Middle America in those days was going to adopt a kid who might not even be white. Things were changing by 1968, but trust me to miss the benefit.
Anyway, I tossed the ball into the equipment shed and sprinted to the bathroom. No time for a shower. I slopped off the smell with a washcloth at the sink and darted into the bedroom for a change of clothes.
Jimmy still had his face smooshed against the screen, humming loudly. He said it tickled his lips.
“Cut it out,” I said, pulling on a clean tee and buttoning my good Madras shirt over it. “You’ll get lead poison or something. That screen’s dirty.”
“I washed it,” he lied.
I hesitated between my pegged jeans or my new bell-bottoms. I decided to go with the more conservative look, and squeezed my feet through the older jeans and into my loafers. Thank God, I thought, for Trinity Episcopal Sunday School’s Dorcas Class, who had chosen the Refuge as their “mission” for the year. They tended to concentrate on the younger kids, but one of the members was a male clothes horse, and he’d passed me some pretty cool threads.
“Better hurry, before she changes her mind,” Jimmy mumbled, without taking his mouth off the screen.
I shook some Barbasol onto my hair and combed it back. Mrs. Brandt was with-it enough to let me wear my hair as long as I wanted, even half-way down my ears, but she insisted I keep it neat. I could live with that.
I peered into the mirror. Did I need a shave? No, but maybe in a couple of days.
“Hope you like the taste of bug guts,” I said, on my way out of the room. “Notice, if you will, the fly swatter on the floor under the window.”
When I opened Mrs. Brandt’s office door, the first thing I saw was that I wasn’t going to be adopted, at least not by this lady. They were stricter, in those days, about who was “qualified” to adopt, and that was pretty well middle-class young couples, mostly white. This lady was white and, if her rings were real, she met the financial requirements, but she was old – like with white hair and wrinkles. I found out later that she was born in 1897, which was cool, so she was seventy-one that day in mid-July.
The second thing I noticed were the dogs. Two orange Pekingese dogs, to get technical about it. One was solid orange, and the other had a white patch on his chest and one white stocking. “Oh-oh,” I said to myself. “Another mongrel. Pup, you and I are going to get along.” I went down on one knee and held out my hand to the cautiously advancing dogs. They darted their noses toward my fingers, huffing and chuffing and waving feathery tails. At this delicate stage of diplomatic negotiations, I remembered there were grown-ups in the room and that I had been summoned for a purpose involving them.
“Mitch,” Mrs. Brandt said, with a chuckle hidden under her voice, “this is Miss Amelia Hardesty of Willowbrook. Miss Hardesty, this is Mitch Franklin, the young man I was telling you about.”
Willowbrook was the name of the town mansion on a hill outside of Faelin, too far off the state road to be seen in any detail. Also known as The Old Hardesty Place, and I guessed this must be The Old Hardesty.
The lady beamed at me. Apparently, making up to the dogs had put me on her good side.
“How do you do, Mitch?” She had a soft, sweet voice, a voice that sounded like the way talcum powder smells. “I’m glad to see you and my babies getting along so well.”
I took my hands off the furry orange heads and stood up, wiping my palms on my jeans.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’d shake hands, but –”
“Oh, I don’t mind a little dog hair, especially from my own dogs.” I guess she didn’t: Her navy blue suit was covered with orange fuzz. She held out her little pink hand; it was soft, but cold. Her mild blue eyes darted from my face to the clock above Mrs. Brandt’s head. “I’m looking for a young man to work for me, full-time, live-in. You’ll have a room in the house, full board, and a salary, payable at the end of the week.” She named a sum that was twice what I made bagging groceries at the grocery. “You’ll do some small household repair work – Mrs. Brandt tells me you’re quite a handyman – but your main job will be to help me look after my babies.”
I looked at the dogs, who were still sniffing at my pants legs.
“Their names are Chan –” the one with the white patches looked up at her expectantly –”and Wong.” The other dog, solid orange, wagged his tail twice, vigorously. “How fortunate that they’ve taken to you already. That was my one worry. Will you take the job?”
Mrs. Brandt nodded when I looked at her, so I said, “Sure. I mean, thank you, Miss Hardesty.”
The old lady laughed and said, “You must call me Aunt Missy. Will you?”
I looked down into those twinkly blue eyes, that white hair curling around those laugh-wrinkles, those dimples, and I knew I had my first case of Grandma-love. The Refuge traded visits once a month with the Oak Ridge Nursing Home, and the little kids always went nuts over some “Granny Ellen” or “Gran’pa Joe,” but I never had. Now I knew what they felt: “This one is for ME.”
“Sure, Aunt Missy. I, um, I need to give them two weeks’ notice at the store, so I could start –”
Miss Hardesty sat forward and gripped the edge of Mrs. Brandt’s desk. “Oh,” she said, a gentle sound, full of dismay. “No, I need you now. I need you to start today. Can’t you? Where do you work?”
I told her.
“Do you have the number? I’ll call them. May I?”
Ten minutes later, I had a new job and a promise of a glowing reference from my former manager.
“There!” Aunt Missy folded her hands in her lap on top of her white gloves and black leather pocketbook. “We’ll leave as soon as you’re ready, Mitch, dear.”
Mrs. Brandt came to help me pack. We stopped at the storage closet on the way, to collect an old black Samsonite suitcase and a brown canvas handbag.
“Just take what you need for overnight,” she told me. “I’ll send the rest out with Billy.” Billy was the general workman for the Refuge. He’d taught me how to drive a nail and such.
“I’m really going to live up at Willowbrook?” Maybe that was a stupid question, but it was a little hard to picture.
“In the old days, the Hardestys had a lot of live-in employees. Lovely, clean rooms on the first floor, not ‘servants’ quarters’ in the attic, or anything Victorian like that.”
That’s right, I said to myself. I’m not a servant, I’m an independent contractor.
As we came in, Jimmy looked up from the lightning bolt he was drawing on the sole of one sneaker.
“Is Mitch in trouble?” Hard to tell from his voice if he was worried or hopeful.
“No.” Mrs. Brandt stroked Jimmy’s head. “He has a job. A live-away job.”
I went through my two drawers and half-a-closet and separated all my worldly goods into a small pile and a smaller pile. The small pile, I put into the suitcase; the smaller one, I’d take with me. I stuffed a couple of my books into the handbag and left the others on the bed. My comic book collection was already in a brown paper bag. I put that on the bed, too, shooting a warning glare at Jimmy.
“Don’t touch these.”
“You’re leaving?” This time, I heard an edge of almost-panic in the words. I knew how he felt. I’d been at the Refuge my whole life. Every kid who came through the Faelin system found me there and left me there; a kid, like them, but part of the process. Kind of a humanizing element, you might say. Like a camp mascot, only I could talk.
I pulled a dozen comics off the top of the stack. “Here, you can have my duplicates.” I had planned to trade them, but I was feeling weirdly too-old-for-that-stuff right now. “You can have my Enterprise model, too, if you want it.” I wasn’t really into “Star Trek” anyway: the model had been under the Refuge tree in a box marked BOY 10+, and Mrs. Brandt’s fat cousin in the Santa suit had just happened to give it to me. I had always planned to give it to Jimmy as soon as I thought he had drooled over it enough.
Mrs. Brandt’s shoes clicked across the tile floor. “Come to the office when you’ve finished saying goodbye.” Her voice sounded thick to me, like she was trying not to cry. Maybe I just thought that because it was what I was about to do.
“Where’s everybody else?” I asked Jimmy. There were six of us at the Refuge just then, with room for two more.
“Movies.” Jimmy went back to drawing on his shoe.
“Why didn’t you go with them?”
“Why didn’t you ask me? I’d have given you –”
Jimmy stopped drawing and threw the pen at me.
“Go on and leave, then!” he shouted.
“Hey!” I used my deepest, hardest voice. His head snapped around to stare at me. I pointed at him. “Don’t touch my comics. You do, and you die.” I stepped over and ruffled his hair with my knuckles.
And that was goodbye.
“Can you drive, Mitch, dear?” Miss Hardesty – Aunt Missy – asked, as we left the Refuge. “Do you have your license? Your permanent license?”
“Would you drive, then? I may have overdone it; I’m feeling rather tired.”
“Sure, Aunt Missy.”
Chan and Wong trotted at her heels like a couple of perfect gentlemen. Ivy League obedience school, no doubt.
Aunt Missy pulled a set of keys out of her black bag and handed them to me. “This is it.”
“It” was a deep green 1968 Mercedes Benz sedan. I’m not a gear head, but even I was impressed.
“It’s an automatic,” Aunt Missy said. “Can you drive an automatic?”
“Oh, yes.” I let the dogs into the back seat, where they curled up on a plush white towel (now covered with orange fuzz). I settled Aunt Missy into the front. I couldn’t suppress a grin as I slid behind the wheel and turned the key.
“It’s a nice car, isn’t it?” Aunt Missy asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a nice car.”
She leaned forward and worked some controls on the console. I braced myself for 101 Strings playing Andy Williams’ Greatest Hits, but what I got was a blast of cool air. Goosebumps in July. Who could ask for more?
I pulled out of the parking lot and turned right, toward the north edge of town.
“You know the way, dear?”
“Good.” She relaxed against the seat and closed her eyes. She gave a deep and shuddery sigh. “Such a relief,” she said. “Such a burden off my shoulders.”
“What, those little guys?” Chan and Wong were asleep in the back, each snoring in his own particular key.
“Yes and no. Somewhat indirectly, one might say. You see, dear, the real reason I need you, and needed you right away. . . The dogs are in danger. Mortal danger. Someone is trying to kill my babies.”
I glanced at Aunt Missy, long enough to see that she wasn’t kidding me. Quit my job, left my home, trapped in a moving vehicle with a woman who thought somebody wanted to murder a couple of animated dust mops.
And I had thought it was tough just being an orphan.