Halfway through scrambled eggs and grits, my quiet morning broke apart. Out front, kids spilled over the sidewalks into the street, yelling and punching each other. Drivers slammed on brakes and hit their horns. The kids ignored them.
“Who are they?” I couldn’t take my eyes off the front window.
“Orphans, from the Children’s Home on Main Street,” Mother said. “Children are orphaned when their parents die, or can’t care for them.” Mother stubbed out her cigarette. “Or don’t want them. Go brush your teeth. We have to go.” She settled my brother Alex in his stroller.
We walked to my new school. I put my hand close to Mother’s and helped to push the stroller. At the gate, she straightened my dress and looked at the kids playing. “As long as there are ashes and dust, orphans will be born.”
“What’s that mean?”
“One of your grandfather’s sayings, I suspect he was trying to sound Biblical. You’ll understand when you’re older. Daddy will be waiting right here, at two-thirty.”
The orphans tore around the schoolyard in ragged clothes. Up close they smelled musty. Five boys in a circle played jacks and laughed loudly; boys snatched orphan girls’ jump ropes and threw them on the ground. A tall boy zipped his jacket around his head and ran at me, flapping his arms and growling. His bony face poked out of the hole, the jacket fell down his back like green monster hair. His face was how I’d recognize him later, in nightmares.
I jumped hard on the water fountain pedal to make water shoot out. A grate covered a hole by the fountain. At the bottom, a soggy sweater and dirty underpants. The bell rang. The first day of first grade.
At recess a skinny boy worked two yo-yo’s at once. My string always stayed limp and the yo-yo dangled. I complimented his yo-yo tricks and asked why he lived in the orphanage. Did his parents die? Maybe they didn’t love him? His face went blank and he walked away.
In the hall an orphan girl grabbed the front of my dress. “Meet me outside, after school. I’m gonna beat you up.” She stuck her dirty fists in my face. She sat across from me in class and tried to kick me. But I hadn’t done anything to her. I’d have to fight. I didn’t know how.
Finally the end-of-school bell rang. Daddy stood at the gate. I grabbed his hand. The girl ran past, pretending not to see me, turned and shook her fists in the air. The inside of my head buzzed.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “That girl’s angry, probably jealous of you.”
Knowing why the girl was jealous didn’t stop my brooding about orphans.
My fixation on orphans began in first grade when I began wondering. Were the grown-ups nice to the kids? What happened to their parents? What did an orphanage look like? Did the kids fight? Were the grown-ups nice? Enough bath tubs and good food to go around? At school their laughs sounded screechy, and they hardly smiled. Were they happy?
I had questions about psychological survival and physical survival. When I grew older I learned there were many routes to becoming an orphan. And I learned more about physical and psychological survival.