Critical Thought: Orphan

I love orphans. Years ago I made a video called Orphans starring the guy who played the lead cat in Cats and a friend of mine from Mabou Mines and a circus clown. It was about the end of the world as told by Daniel Defoe, first novelist, and in my story, the last. I’m stuck thinking sci-fi when it comes to orphans. It must be such a hot topic in my brain I can’t cast it in the now. Orphans in the future have no names which is great because nameless characters are, to my mind, the most universal. The no-name girls who harass them have a clone-like, mall-girl presence. Think Night of the Comet, which I’ve never seen but its surreal scenario inspires me--it’s the end of the world and two Valley girls have to fight off the zombies (Daddy would have gotten us Uzis!). They haven’t a clue. But I think anyone who isn’t an orphan has no clue, that an orphan’s life is usually very hidden. Marilyn Monroe was an orphan. Tom Sawyer. Not to mention Harry Potter. Henry Darger painted his orphanage over and over. Barthelme’s Korean orphan in “The School.” Also my mother died last year and left me nothing.

Terese Svoboda's sixth novel, Bohemian Girl, was published last fall. She has published stories in One Story, Bomb, Yale Review, Narrative and elsewhere.

Orphan Shop

Ditsy, a kind of Morse code of shriek-and-stop, erupts around the girls—whoever heard of a guy in the ditsy department?—until they halt, one, two, three, each bumping into the other, at the orphan shop.

Adoption's fun, says the front one.

You'd think we didn't have fun, says the next, the way you say that.

The front one demurs, forcing the third into talking: Halves are the way to go, half- sisters, that way you stay out of the shops.

Two girls not a lot younger, press themselves against the window making sad weather for the girls grouping outside, mouthing Orphans like a hit song.

I've heard of baskets of them left behind, where you don't have to have papers signed, says one, jiggling her bracelet at the girls now jumping jacks to amuse them.

My mom bought one to go with my peach pants, says another. It sweat.

They watch the girls paging through books, one even pokes at it as if it were electronic to show them she knows how to do interface. One of them taps on the window with her head.

I wouldn't want that one doing my homework, says the front one.

I have homework I really want done, says another. More than you.

The girls behind the window show their labels: Chanel, Dior, Gap. Her dress doesn't even fit, says the last one about the last one.

Can you get one and just keep the clothes? asks the second who has backed away, bored.

I saw one that didn't have to have clothes, says the front one. It had a leash and looked like a lot of trouble.

With a leash, repeats the third, in a voice as dreamy as the color of the marker the girls inside smear across the window. With a leash, you never know who is really walking whom.

You'd like to think, says the front one.

They wander away. A spiky set of lights and a moving sidewalk lure them, the sidewalk coming right up next to them. But they're still into the shop. The front one accuses the last of orphanhood herself. You never count backwards from ten before answering your Mom, you talk nice when you don't have to.

The last one laughs. I count other things. It's you, because you accused me--you must be the orphan.

Orphan, orphan! The two un-accused girls scream, the sidewalk curling away from them.

The front one stomps the sidewalk still. Sighing, they all follow it back to the shop.

I wish we had Thespians, or even lesbian orphans, says the third. My mom won't even allow me to save hankies—she's afraid I'll keep the bacteria.

We have to go home, says the front one, she mouths it to the watchers-in-the-window whereupon they start throwing things. They don't have much to throw, the clothes on themselves, or in one case, a fake tooth that falls out which makes a nice ping.

They think they're Christ on the cross, says the second. She sticks out her tongue.

An LCD starts at the bottom of the window, its readout only one: the statistic on how many orphans are made every minute. They put that on to make us feel sorry for them, says the front one.

I'll sympathy them with a half hour of my mother, says the second one.

They could always pretend to be dead.

Or be dead, says the third. Grateful is what they should be.

The three of them ditsy off but they don't leave it alone. I got the one girl's barcode, says the front one. I can look it up, see what she did.

I wouldn't bother, says the second. They’ll spam. Anyway, she could have done something noble and not deserve it, or maybe she did nothing and somebody just dumped her. Sometimes the orphans are just sent back. Returns.

Who's got change? says the second one.

The last one turns out her purse and pockets for whatever's loose, the other one has a bill. The second is short but collects it all so it looks like she's not and runs back to the window with the money. The orphans go crazy, seeing the bills in her hand. They press on the bar beside the door but pellets drop in and nothing else. There's no way to collect the change is what everyone learns, the display is broken.

The front girl puts her hand against the orphan's ear that's against the side of the glass. I'm getting into her head, she says. I'm telling her it isn't so bad.

They just think they're orphans, they have no proof—see that one who's writing down different names like she's choosing? says the second.

The other two watch the orphan press the paper against the glass. If I got one, my Mom would kill me, says the last. She'd orphan us both or make me wear the orphan's clothes to school.

The last one skips away. They don't have to go to school. How bad could it be?

She comes back to watch. The girls on the other side pull one of their mouths open, looking for something with their fingers. Then they push at the pellet bar until their space is pelleted full.

I don't know, says the front one. Why don't they fight?

That's what we do, says the other.

Rats love to fight, says the front one. We had a rat in class that jumped headfirst into the trash to get into it.

The LCD counts backward.

The girls on both sides of the glass watch each other, the ones outside doing 3-2-1, the orphans slowly closing their eyes.

The lights go off in the orphan display.

The lights go up on three more.

They can't all be orphans, yawns the last. Too many.

Oh? says the second. Watch.

The new orphans begin weeping, hands-outstretched, they weep and look so sad in between. Finally, Thespian orphans, says the second.

A long white sidewalk approaches them.

I had a dream I ended up an orphan, says the last one. The parents popped off and didn't leave me anything. Imagine being that worthless.

The girls' eyes go blank while their brains imagine.

by Terese Svoboda