Lee, the caretaker at Stone Hill orphanage, had been the first to hear the baby crying. He pulled on his overalls and went barefoot from his cottage into the warm June night, following the tiny sounds. The baby was wrapped in a blue blanket inside a wicker basket. Lee carried it back to his cottage and bathed the infant boy, still bloody from birth. Then he hurried across the courtyard and into the big kitchen, where he took a couple of diapers from the supply closet and a baby bottle that he filled with milk.
In the morning Lee brought the wicker basket into the main house, the orphanage, where after careful inspection by Doc Goodwin, the baby was duly installed as a resident and hastily given the name Joseph. “God bless you, Joseph,” Lee murmured under his breath.
Joseph may have been blessed, but his health was a liability from the start. He was a sickly baby given to fits of colic. Rocking was all that quieted him, but at night the resident staff was a mere skeleton crew, spread thin among sixty children, and weary. Whenever Lee offered to relieve them of their burdensome new charge, they were quite willing to give the child over to him.
After tending the grounds all day, there was not much else for Lee to do. Sure, he could spiff himself up, get himself into the city to the clubs that dotted the shabby streets behind the textile mills, listen to the jazz, maybe get himself dealt into a card game or follow some woman down into the darkness on an overworked bed. But on his meager wages, those nights out were few and far between. Still, in those days, when even white men went begging for work, Lee considered himself a fortunate man indeed. He had a job, a roof over his head, never mind that it leaked in a few places, nothing one or two pans couldn’t handle. And he was surrounded by children who lightened his heart and made him smile, who jumped up and down and clapped their hands when he’d return from a trip downtown and empty his pockets of two-for-a-penny balloons or lollipops. He was luckier than most.
He enjoyed being of use, outside of the job he was paid to do. He was especially taken with this new baby and reasoned it must have been because he had found him and cared for him in the first lonely hours after his birth. Sometimes it would take hours to quiet Joseph. Lee would settle into the big Boston rocker in the playroom, and when he was sure the baby was asleep, he’d lay him in the crib and stand around a few minutes just in case, practically holding his breath. Satisfied all was well, he’d tiptoe out of the room, past the other sleeping children, and make his way back to his cottage, humming the last of an old lullaby remembered from his own childhood.
It was no great secret that babies stood the best chance of being adopted, and Joseph was only one of a handful. But he was usually passed over for a more animated, red-cheeked baby. By the time he was three, he didn’t want to be adopted and at that early age, he developed his own game of pretend. He’d cough and drop his eyelids so that he looked tired and uninterested. It worked. Somebody else was always taken, and that was fine with him.
Lee called Joseph his shadow. The boy followed him around, tossing off one question after another. What are you doing now? How do you do that? Can I help you?
As Joseph grew older the questions changed. When he was five, he asked why Lee’s skin was dark and his was not. Lee tried to explain about races and nationalities, but Joseph screwed up his nose and asked about his own background. How about me? What am I? Lee was powerful sorry, he just didn’t know. Then he pointed to the side of the road, beyond the garden. “I ’spect you is kinda like them wildflowers over there. No one knows how they got started and why they keep growing, they just do. And I dare anyone say they’re not as beautiful as these here roses that we plant ourselves.”
One day Joseph climbed over the chain link fence and wandered into the densely wooded area behind the building where the children were not allowed. He wasn’t afraid of the woods, at least not in daylight. Dead leaves crunched under his feet and he used a twig to move them around, searching for anything his mother may have left behind, a ribbon, a pin, a piece of her clothing. He sat on a fallen branch, let a ladybug crawl on his hand and finger. He would not have minded being born in the woods, in the middle of a warm night. God, he wished he had the power to recall something about her, the touch of her hand, her scent, the sound of her voice, the color of her eyes. Were they blue? Or dark, almost black, like his? Mama.
He’d been missed. He heard voices calling his name, and he made his way toward them. They were glad he was safe but angry that he’d broken the rule and wandered off. His punishment was to stay in bed all of the next day. No reading, no drawing, no toys. But Lee sneaked in and handed him a piece of paper and two crayons he’d scrounged up; one red, one blue. His visit cheered Joseph until Lee advised him to give up his wondering and searching. “Best you face it sooner than later,” he said. “You is an orphan, little man. That means you got no folks, no kin, and that be that. But it don’t mean you ain’t loved. Hear me?” Joseph tried to be brave and hold back the tears. That’s when Lee told him he should let them run free lest they rust his insides.
In the spring Joseph helped Lee turn the soil in his vegetable garden. Together they patted down mounds of earth, pulled weeds, and reaped a steady harvest right into the fall. Once they built a scarecrow, dressed it in a ragged shirt and pants, and stuffed an old pillowcase with newspaper for his head.
“That’s some funny looking creature,” Joseph said.
“He sure is,” Lee replied. “We should give him a name.”
“Give him mine ’cause I want a new one.”
“Huh? Why? Joseph’s a good name.”
Joseph shrugged, bit into a fresh string bean and squinted into the sun. “I want a real name, all mine. One I pick myself.”
Lee wiped sweat from the back of his neck and forehead. “Well, I guess you can decide that for yourself one day when you’re older.”
“I already decided. I want my name to be Rufus Lee Wetherly.”
Lee sat back on the grass and talked through a laugh. “Well, hold on now. That name’s spoken for, and if you’ll be excusing me, little man, I ain’t quite done with it yet.”
“Oh, I don’t mean right now. I was thinking I could have it when you’re done with it.”
“Yeah, well, let old Lee think on it. I suppose there’s a chance I could pass it on to you seeing I have no children of my own . . . let me put some thought into it. In the meanwhile, help me with these weeds ’fore they choke all the goodness out of them Big Boy tomatoes.”
When Joseph was nine, Lee thought him old enough to have the note his mother had written and pinned to his blanket. He had preserved all the remnants of the boy’s birth, including the wicker basket. Joseph’s hands trembled as he unfolded the paper, and he went off alone to read it. He would read it many times over in the days and weeks that followed, but he only needed to read it once to know for certain that he loved the woman who’d written it. He wished only to find her, to tell her that he would indeed forgive her, as she had asked him to do in her letter.
Four times each year the well-to-do ladies and gentleman who embraced Stone Hill as their favorite charity were rewarded with recitals or plays at the orphanage. Afterwards they sipped fruit juice from small paper cups and accepted a butter cookie or two brought around by the children. In the Christmas pageants Joseph was often cast as a shepherd boy or one of the Wise Men, and the generous offering of applause stirred his imagination: Acting seemed to be a possible route to approval and acceptance.
During final bows he had gotten into the habit of scanning the faces of the women in the audience. He had a sense that his mother was not among those whose coat collars were adorned with fur or gold brooches. No, she’d be seated somewhere in the back where the light was dimmer, camouflaged in shadows. She would be a woman on a secret pilgrimage—to catch a glimpse of her son. And Joseph would know her because he was certain that some cosmic current, more intense than darkness, longer than miles of road and years of separation, connected a mother and her child.
When Joseph was fourteen, he was chosen to take center stage and pay tribute to the soldiers killed at Gettysburg. At first he approached the performance as nothing more than a recitation of a famous speech. He’d memorize it, deliver it to a politely attentive audience whose collective mind would probably be racing ahead to the conclusion of yet another charitable afternoon. By then, he had grown too tall for the white-gloved hands that patted the heads of the littler waifs. And he was glad of it. He’d developed a benign resentment at being paraded on stage with the other children as a way to engender sympathy and a heftier donation. On his own, then, he decided to try and give these people a reason to keep coming back—not out of charity or social responsibility but to be truly entertained.
The idea was lacking clear definition. He knew only that his performance had to begin with him, inside him. He tried to think of ways he could feel like Lincoln, and he decided it would help if he could dress in something other than his own secondhand white shirt and faded brown corduroys. He wanted a costume. Actors wore costumes, even if they were ordinary clothes. He pored through some old history books, reading all he could to try and develop an impression of what the man might have been like in his own time.
He pointed to pictures and hounded Lee to help him find the proper clothing. Lee balked, asking the reason for going to so much trouble. “All you got to do is what you done maybe a hundred times before. Just read out some words and smile. When they clap, you is done, take your bow, and that be the end of it. Now, what’s all this sudden fuss and bother about, you mind tellin’ me, boy?”
Joseph was at a loss to explain what he himself didn’t fully understand, but he added one more heartfelt, “Please?” And the next afternoon, didn’t old Lee take himself down into the dingy cellar and up into the dusty attic, searching until he found what he hoped would pass as a costume. “I am cursed with a soft heart,” he muttered, handing over a battered top hat and a baggy black suit that smelled musty and old. “And a little luck, eh?”
Joseph was pleased. The clothes would do just fine once they were aired out. The speech was memorized but something was still wrong. Even with his costume, he still didn’t feel the part. Whatever he was reaching for was out of his grasp until the moment he took his place on stage, folded his fingers under the lapels of his coat, and paused. During that brief pause an idea came to him so suddenly that he could almost hear an audible click in his brain. He stared out at the audience—but now they were no longer an audience. They were the relatives and friends of the dead soldiers in whose memory they’d gathered and in whose honor their President would now dedicate a memorial.
Behind him, the children’s chorus set the mood by humming the Battle Hymn of the Republic. He waited a beat, then stepped forward and began: Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . He continued with an earnestness he didn’t even recognize as belonging to him. He emptied his heart, embracing words that inspired beauty and attention: dedicate, consecrate, these honored dead . . .
At the end he pulled in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He had finished without faltering and now stood still, waiting for the applause he’d come to love and appreciate. Waiting, frozen inside the silence, mouth and lips going dry. He surmised he’d made a complete fool of himself, and the audience was stifling their mockery. Perhaps he had been too theatrical in his presentation, too affected. He wanted to run and keep on running until he was far away from Stone Hill. He stole a sideways glance backstage and saw tears glistening on Lee’s dark, wrinkled cheeks. And then, the applause came, slowly at first, rippling over the proscenium, then full blown and sustained. He breathed easier, his body relaxed. It was okay. He removed his hat, held it by his side, and he bowed deeply, accepting their praise.
Lee tugged on the stubborn cord, jerking the heavy old curtain closed. He placed a firm hand on the boy’s shoulder as Joseph walked by. “Good work, son,” Lee said, the words almost whispered and catching in his throat. “Mighty good.”
The boy hung back for a moment, silent. Tears pinched his eyes at the word son and at the sudden realization that for the first time, he had forgotten to look for his mother in the audience. He ran off, folding himself into an isolated corner, and wept. After his tears subsided, he felt a quiet resignation: His mother was not there anyway, never had been, and never would be.
“Mama,” he whispered, then again, and then once more, for the last time.