The orphanage was an abandoned mental institution, three floors, with faulty wiring that buzzed and flickered the lights when someone plugged in the slump-maker in the kitchen, or sometimes for no reason at all. Hallways and stairwells were unavoidable, and a lot of smoking and sex and fights happened there. You could not squeeze past your enemies unnoticed. The other girls would go after you if you were too pretty, or ugly, or looked at her sideways, or looked at her boo sideways, or had a new placement, or sometimes for no reason at all. The whole place smelled of disposed garbage and vomit diluted with industrial cleanser, so the building kind of suited us. They didn’t call it an orphanage, but “Youth Center 64, Where We Grow Character”.
Us kids formed little gangs and roamed the city, when we weren’t being fostered out and brought back stamped “Return to Sender”. We rolled our cigarettes and messages in receipts we found on the ground. The SOS messages were placed in plastic bottles, capped, and set afloat on the filthy river like a barge of desperation.
My best friend, Joey, was the best plastic shipbuilder in our gang. He had ways of stringing the bottles together with wire and cords to make fine sailing galleons.
“See, if the ships are bigger, I can make more words, and someone will come help us,” he said. “Here, write a message and put it in with mine. I won’t look.”
I wrote it, and he stuck the rolled paper into the SS Embargo and christened her journey by hurling her out into the current. She bobbed upon the choppy, opaque waves, sailed under the bridge and out of sight to a plastic island somewhere where bottles filled with our lost souls went to settle.
It seemed like I just went from place to place, waiting to be adopted, wanting to be wanted, my shoes and bags more worn at every turn, making families of whoever remembered my name.
When our characters were done being grown they farmed us out to the highest bidder. Gender equality prevailed. It didn’t matter if you were boy or girl or something in-between; we were all whores one nation under God.
The uniform is sexy in its own way, designed to keep emotion from flying loose. Two rows of buttons, a built-in corset, stockings that snap to garters at the thigh. It is like a second skin. I take it off at night. It still squeezes, and not a single feeling escapes.
I guess I can count myself lucky. The condo is luxurious, in a highrise uptown. When I clean the windows I can see the skyline, the sharp points of all the precipices and towers, the cathedrals and bridges, and far out beyond the city limits a horizon that hints at an edge, a dropping-off place, an end to it all.
Herr Humer is a placid man. He is not very big nor small, with fine hair sucked dry of color that falls in wisps across his ghost of a forehead. He does not touch me, but enjoys sitting in his armchair and watching as I go about my chores. That is, if he could be said to enjoy anything. The shadow of an expression never crosses his face. He is a man of few words.
“That could use a polish. Those frames need to be touched up. Take a look to see if my glasses have landed beneath the sofa.”
This is the extent of our conversation.
There is a framed pastoral scene, as dry in color and tone as the man himself, that hangs above the mantel, which he insists I dust daily. To reach it, I must bring the ladder. I climb up, and whisk, whisk, whisk, with the duster. This whole time I can see his meaningless face watching, reflected in the glass. Until one day he says “Stay there. Don’t move. Don’t turn around.”
I don’t sleep well. The next day I climb the ladder and see his gaunt, moon-pale face reflected in the glass.
“I don’t want to do this anymore.”
I turn. “I don’t want it. Any of it. I don’t need to work here for my keep.”
I climb down off the ladder. Herr Humer is in front of me like a bullet. I never thought he was capable of moving so fast. He points his ruddy finger at my nose. His face, for the first time, is red.
“Get back up there and turn around.”
As I bite down on the finger, the blood fills my mouth, and the bone crunches. I didn’t know I was so angry, but the finger comes off and I spit out the shreds and gag. There is so much blood, it has drained all the rest of the color from him. He stares at the spurt and his missing appendage, then down at the spat-out finger on the carpet. He falls, grips the spurt, and flails, screaming and cussing like a holy roller filled with the spirit.
I drop the duster and run, through the front door, down the three flights of emergency stairs. The front of my corset is stained red and soaked through. There is nothing to cover that or me in my ridiculous outfit as I scramble down the streets, lost. I slip into an alley where a drunk is sleeping in a cardboard shanty. He has covered himself with a black coat, which I snatch. I stick my arms in the sleeves of the oversized, smelly coat and run.
The pedestrians give me a sour look when I ask directions to 73rd South. Finally, a man playing bongos on garbage can lids points to the west.
“Ten blocks down.”
My feet are blistered and bleeding when I reach the door where Joey was sent as an apprentice. The houseman sniffs at my ragged coat.
“Joey is gone. He will never set foot here again.” In the back of the dark room are pained-looking boys dressed in chains and black stockings. The houseman slams the door in my face.
There is nothing to do but wander the streets, looking for a high precipice to throw myself from. By late afternoon my bloody feet carry me to the riverfront, where the day’s trash and debris lap against the shore. I wander along the waterfront until I see the battered piece of land where we used to launch our plastic ships. I guess our tradition spread, because there is a plastic bottle wedged almost out of sight in the tangled branches of a bush. And, yes, there is a paper inside.
He had sailed to the plastic island, and read all the cries for help.
Then there was a sketch map to the place where the world drops off.