Note: For a time, because his young father had died suddenly and his mother was forced to clean the floors of a railroad station, my grandfather and his brother were “charity kids,” and residents of a Cleveland orphanage. Not a good time for him. He was a very young child. A story he told me where he was forced to eat potato peels inspired this segment.
The Cuyahoga County Orphanage
The Tea Kettle and the Potato Peel
Cuyahoga County Orphanage
August, 1903 Cleveland, Ohio
“Mrs. Kray, I believe you’re spoiling this child; I warn you, he’ll not be ready for the world when he leaves.” Mrs. Murphy was beginning to wear out her welcome. Plump, motherly, and younger looking than her sixty years, the cook was causing problems, some more serious than others. Her rules, including no talking when in the kitchen and scrubbing spotless pots, were bewildering to the unfortunate orphans assigned kitchen duty. Miriam, the previous cook had given notice after fifteen years. “I’ve taken a position in Columbus,” she said, avoiding Mrs. Kray’s stricken face. Mrs. Kray didn’t ask why Miriam was leaving. She already knew.
The week before they found Mr. Buchner hanging in the shed, she had seen “Bernie” standing at the open door of the classroom. The teacher’s attention was on verbs. Of the fifty-three students, some sitting at the thirty or so desks, many on the floor, the little ones sitting on the lap of an older student, none seemed aware of him. “What’re you doing? Go sit with the others.”
She looked in horror to see seventy-year-old Mr. Buchner. The boy’s face tilted up to meet his disapproving gaze. The old man paled; his sunken mouth opened, but no sound emerged. The child never moved—an owl eyeing a mouse. Leave—run! Inside the classroom, the children were reciting the tenses of verbs. Mr. Buchner shook his head several times as words failed to form on his moving lips. He turned, his elbows swaying wildly, his wooden leg, the result of a bullet from rebel fire in ’61, clomping down the hall.
Suicide? How did such a small boy engineer the murder of a grown man? Suicide, but they never explained the pulley. How did the old man hoist himself up? His throat torn open, cut by his own bloodied hand, the dead fingers locked around the knife.
Poor Darcy found him. The girl still wasn’t right, insisting on sleeping on the floor at the foot of Mrs. Kray’s narrow bed, a liberty she had never allowed before Mr. Buchner’s death. “He was looking up and his mouth . . . open . . . and . . . his tongue . . . ” The girl kept sobbing.
“Darcy put it out of your mind. Think of something else. Pray.” Darcy promised to try, but Mrs. Kray knew that Mr. Buchner’s dead eyes, looking up to heaven, the blood dripping from his stiff shirt weren’t easily forgotten by anyone. The death of Mr. Buchner resulted in a series of handy men, each only staying a week or so until she found Leon. Hard of hearing and simple-minded, Leon a large and amiable man in his early sixties, stayed. The fact that he was less than efficient and that left many chores undone until Mrs. Kray or one of the older boys took care of them was less important than the fact that Bernie had no effect on him. Mrs. Kray thanked God for sending her Leon.
Dread now lived at the orphanage. Mrs. Murphy, newly arrived from Boston, had a crisp manner. The kitchen ran with military precision, the pots were shining on new hooks, and every scrap of food used in a stew, soup or a pie. Mrs. Kray realized that the cook’s complaints were more than an annoyance; they were deadly.
The trays prepared and left for the strange boy, who spent most of his time secluded in the small storeroom were an outrage to Mrs. Murphy. She had been pressing Mrs. Kray for an explanation for weeks. “He has special needs,” Mrs. Kray said again.
Mrs. Murphy narrowed her eyes in disbelief. She patted and smoothed her copper hair swept up in a knotted bun that sat like a small pot handle on top of her head. “It won’t do for too much longer,” she snapped, “I must be honest . . .” The cook lingered for a moment standing over Mrs. Kray who focused on a stack of papers sitting on her cluttered desk.
“Thank you Mrs. Murphy, I’ll let you know when there is a change.” With a look of tight-lipped disgust, Mrs. Murphy did an abrupt turn and left.
Mrs. Kray sighed and finished the last of August’s accounts. It had been a successful summer. Darcy was adopted by a family with two small boys, and a set of five-year old twins orphaned by a fire, were taken by a childless couple in Cleveland.
As the afternoon light faded, Mrs. Kray decided to place an ad for another cook and give Mrs. Murphy her notice. Searching her desk for paper, she saw the rabbit’s foot. It had been in Herman’s hand when he pounded on Bernie’s door. She had hoped she’d been in time, pulling him by the ear, scolding him for “picking on sickly Bernie.” His eyes wide with false innocence, Herman cocked his head and grinned at her, “Lord save me Mrs., I won’t bother the poor soul again.” She knew he was lying; he was in danger, but she could do nothing. Soon after, Herman disappeared. He’d been gone for more than a day. He ran away, she told herself. Two boys found Herman floating in the pond. Mrs. Kray blamed herself for Herman’s death. She should have protected him, saved him, from what? Oh, she wished she knew! Maybe if she knew what he was, she could fight.
It was too dangerous to continue. A monster was in her care, left by the dead man, Baker. Crispin, the suspect in the murderer of a wealthy London widow, kidnapped Bernie, the missing orphan, seen with him on a ship to New York. She’d written the orphanage in London and was shocked to discover that the person she had thought was a ten-year old child, small for his age, was in fact, seventeen, much too old to be at the orphanage. Many would consider him a man, yet he was scarcely the size of Darcy when she left. She wrote more letters. There were so many questions.
The London home returned them unopened. She’d have to find a way . . . perhaps if she wrote again, they might know of a relative . . .
As she began to compose the ad, she heard screaming. “Mithus Kray! Mithus Kray, help!” A small girl staggered as she came through the open office door. Mrs. Kray jumped from her chair and followed six-year old Maryanne who barely paused at the door before turning back.
“What’s wrong, Mary,” she asked as they hurried.
“Mmmmisss—cook! The cook lady—she—oooh—hooo.” Maryanne ran toward the kitchen, her sobs echoing as Mrs. Kray followed.
At the kitchen’s open double doors, a hot mist greeted her. Heavy pans lay upturned or face down on the floor. On a large table near the pantry door, she saw shattered jars of preserves, their contents spilled on several ears of new corn. Next to the table, six children huddled in its shadow, their bodies rigid with terror, eyes fixed on the huge iron stove where Mrs. Murphy was inspecting the stew for . . .
An odor, it was the broth, beefy, thick and bubbling with vegetables . . . What is she doing? Why are her hands waving? She must be waving the children away because something had fallen into the deep pot, steam rising and the hiss of boiling water splashing out onto the stove, a mouse, perhaps. No, it must be bigger to displace so much water and cause such fear in the children.
The four girls and two boys, all between eight and ten, were transfixed, watching the pot as it shuddered on the large burner. Clouds of steam rose and curled under the glare of the new overhead light. A rat must have . . . or—OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD!
Mrs. Murphy wasn’t inspecting the stewpot. Her body folded from her ample waist, the starched white apron, no longer white, but stained with jam and grease . . . Mrs. Murphy had wedged her face firmly in the stewpot. The handle of red hair moved up and down as if someone were grasping it to inspect the contents of the stewpot, then closing the lid made of Mrs. Murphy’s face. Her extended arms began to make circles as if to beckon them.
“Huhhuhahhhaaaaa!” Maryanne began to wail, breaking the spell. The other children started screaming, Mrs. Kray joining them. The pot spewed broth, vegetables, and pinkish lumps of tissue. Glops of stew flinging onto the stove’s surface and the suction creating a loud pop, the cook pulled free of the stewpot and she stood up straight, the pot teetering for an instant, before continuing to bubble. Burgundy liquid splatted her apron as she turned. Her knob of copper hair collapsed, following her ear as it slid down the side of her neck. The eyes had melted—the sockets a shiny red.
She turned to see Leon and two older boys. The boys were holding baskets filled with apples. “Yes, Leon . . . ” she marveled at the calm in her voice.
“Me and the boys got them apples Miz Murphy wanted” . . . Staring at the cook, whose ear now rested on her shoulder, he began to swallow and grunt, patting the wisps of grey on his bald head and feeling his own ears as if to make sure they stayed in place. He let out a high-pitched sigh. “You ladies got yer hands full, so I best let you git to it.” He motioned to the boys who nodded, their mouths hanging open, the baskets poised for delivery. “Go git washed up fer supper.” He backed out of the doorway, and the boys dropped their baskets. As they left, Mrs Kray considered what to do.
Mrs. Murphy was trying to say something. Her lips were wide ridges supporting the drooping folds of what had been her nose. As she opened her mouth, the tissue formed an oblong opening the size of a jellybean. Steam began to leak out, a long whistle coming from it. A teakettle, thought Mrs. Kray. Still whistling, Mrs. Murphy collapsed onto the floor.
Maryanne was screaming. Mrs. Kray scooped the little girl into her arms as the other children began to scream. She comforted Maryanne, began to collect her senses and saw Bernie standing in the kitchen doorway. He’s finally grown a little she thought. It’s about time, he . . . he was eating something. It was a potato peel, the lunch, she discovered later, that Mrs. Murphy ordered served on his tray.