The Boxcar Children

I'd like to offer an update on my ongoing journey with Stephen Sondheim: Last week I texted Nicole "Sunday In The Park With Geordi LaForge." She texted back "Thank you" in the way you let someone know something is over.

I've also been continuing my rewatch of early Grey's Anatomy, and started an early-warning text thread with some of my friends once Denny Duquette appeared on my screen. "I'm not going to be okay," I warned them. "Please stand by." Then he died, and I was just as upset about it as I was in 2005. The only thing that provided any comfort was when my friend Samantha pointed out that Jeffrey Dean Morgan spent the entire mid-2000s playing beautiful, wistful, beloved dead men. Izzy's dead fiancé. The dead dad on Supernatural. Nancy's dead husband on Weeds. And it helped, a little, to know that Jeffrey Dean Morgan's many mid-aughts-era deaths were spread out over a number of franchises, and that he did his part – more than his part – to increase gender parity in the number of dead love interests whose wistful eyes and noble spirits inspire protagonists. 

I have been trying to write more lately, now that the book is done. Here is the first part of The Boxcar Children. There will be more to come.


About seven o’clock one hot summer evening a strange family moved into the little village of Middlesex. Nobody knew where they came from, or who they were. The father was very drunk. He had been very drunk from at least the hour of seven o’clock on; nobody in the village could have vouched for his condition one way or the other any sooner than that. He could hardly walk up the rickety front steps of the old tumble-down house, and his thirteen-year-old son had to help him. As soon as they reached the door, the old man cartwheeled back down to the bottom of the stairs. He did this sixteen times, either out of spite or whimsy or both. And of course every time he landed on the bottom stair, he split in two, so in no short order the boy was quite overwhelmed with a staircase full of pinwheeling, jacknifing fathers falling just out of his reach. It took over an hour for him to consolidate them all and close the front door behind them.

Toward about eight o’clock a pretty, capable-looking girl of about twelve came out of the house and bought a loaf of bread at the baker’s. (That the baker’s place was open at eight o’clock in the evening in the first place, summer or no, came as a surprise to everyone. It had never happened before, and no one was quite sure how it came to happen on this night, especially the baker.)

“There are four children,” said the bakeshop woman to her husband the next day (she enjoyed counting children). “Their mother is dead, but they must have some money, for the girl paid for the bread with a dollar bill.”  

“See to it they pay up-front for everything they get,” said the baker. “The father is nearly dead with drink now, and there are at least a dozen of him.”

This happened sooner than he might have thought. The next morning the oldest boy and girl came to ask the bakeshop woman to come back to their house. Their father was dead and sitting up on the davenport.

She went over willingly enough, for someone had to go. Why someone had to go, she did not ask herself until much later. But at the time it had seemed a sensible enough request, when the oldest boy and girl fixed their pale, reasonable eyes on hers. So she went, and she looked, at their father who was dead and sitting up on the davenport.

“You agree, then, that he’s dead,” the girl said, swinging her legs under the kitchen table. “You can confirm it, I mean. If someone asked, or – if someone needed to know.”

“Ye-e-e-s,” said the bakeshop woman slowly.

“He was awfully drunk,” another girl added. She was standing on the first landing of the stairs, and she was braiding her hair behind her ear. She might have been ten years old. “And there were so, so many of him.”

“Haven’t you any other people?” the bakeshop woman asked the children. (Who knew how many of them there were. She hadn’t bothered to look under the davenport.) “Anyone who might own you?”

“We have a grandfather who’s kept in Greenfield. I mean he lives there,” said the youngest boy, before his sister could clap her hand over his mouth.

Hush, Benny,” she said anxiously.

This made the bakeshop woman look sharply at him. “What’s the matter with your grandfather?” she asked. “Why haven’t you called for him?”

“He doesn’t like us,” said the oldest boy.

“He doesn’t like us,” said the girl on the landing, so softly she might have said nothing at all.

“He doesn’t like us at all,” Benny said, and burst into tears.

“He doesn’t like us,” continued the oldest boy reluctantly. “He thought our father shouldn’t have married our mother, and he certainly didn’t think they ought to have made us.”

“Nobody ought to have made us,” Benny said, which earned him a tweak from Jessie – for that was the name of the eldest girl – and another “Hush.”

“Benny is dramatical,” Jessie said to the bakeshop woman by way of explanation. “Whether or not we ought to have been made isn’t really the point, is it? Seeing as how we’re here now, and they aren’t.”

“Have you ever met him? This grandfather in Greenfield, who doesn’t like you?” the bakeshop woman, who was beginning to feel rather as if she had wandered into the wrong house, asked.

“Jess has,” the oldest boy said. (He was named Henry James Cordyce.) “Once, I think, she saw him. Didn’t you, Jess?”

Hush,” Benny said to himself.

“Was that hush for me?” Henry James Cordyce asked. “Or was it for you?”

“Wait a minute,” said the woman, “wait a minute, and less of the vaudeville routine, please.” She was startled to find herself sinking halfway through the floor. The carpet was closing around itself just below her knees. “Did he treat you cruelly when you saw him?”

“Oh, he couldn’t see me,” said Jessie. “He was just passing through our – where we used to live – and our father, who is dead and sitting up on the davenport, pointed him out to me.”

“Father is not dead and sitting up on the davenport,” said the girl on the landing. She was quite right, too. The davenport was still there, but there was nobody in it.

“Our father,” Jessie corrected herself, “who is almost certainly dead but no longer sitting up on the davenport, pointed him out to me. I expect he’s at the bottom of the front steps.”

“He used to love the bottom of the front steps,” the girl on the landing said sadly. She had finished braiding her hair by now, and hadn’t done a very good job of it. “I don’t like this house at all,” she added, and sat down. “Do you like it?”

“Where did you used to live?” said the woman, wrenching one of her legs back out of the kitchen floor. It made a horrible wet sound, and the floor rumbled and growled in frustration around her other leg. None of the children would answer her.

“That’s quite neatly done,” Jessie said to her. “I’ve always had a lot of trouble with that floor.” It was true. Her swinging legs were almost entirely ringed round in red and black marks.

“I think we’ll get along all right alone,” Henry James Cordyce said. “Won’t we, Jess?”

“Indeed we will,” Jess said.

"Where did you use to live?" went on the questioner. But none of the children could be made to tell.

"We will get along all right alone, won't we, Henry?" declared Jess.

"Indeed we will!" said Henry. “It was awfully kind of you to come and look at our dead father. I hope it wasn’t too shocking for you.”

Hush,” Benny said.

"I will stay in the house with you tonight," said the woman at last, "and tomorrow we will see what can be done. Will one of you older children please help me up?"

The girl on the landing whirled around and disappeared upstairs.

“It’s because you’re a visitor,” Jessie said. “The kitchen likes visitors. It doesn’t know any better; it’s never been trained.”

“I didn’t ask whether it had been trained,” said the woman, who had a well-ordered kitchen of her own at home. “I’m sure it’s none of my business, what kind of kitchen you’ve got. Help me up.” It took Jessie and Henry pushing and pulling at her both ways for the better part of ten minutes, but eventually they got her up. She felt distinctly silly once she was back on her feet, and smoothed down the front of her apron until the moment passed.

“We’ll sleep in the kitchen,” Jessie said. “You can have the davenport. I would offer you the bed upstairs, only –”

“The davenport will be fine,” the woman said.

Jessie looked relieved. “It’s a much more sensible choice.”

Benny said, “I was born in a dog’s mouth.” When that got no reaction, he added, “I was carried in a dog’s mouth for an hundred years, before I found Henry and Jessie. Then we found Violet.”

After another minute he said, “Jessie, can I have any more blueberries?” The answer to which was no. His hands and mouth were already quite purple.

So the children bedded down in the kitchen, and let their visitor take the davenport in the living-room. They knew that she did not at once go to bed, but sat by the window in the dark. Suddenly they heard her talking to her husband through the open window.

“They must go to their grandfather, that’s certain,” Jessie heard her say.

“Of course,” agreed her husband. “Tomorrow we’ll find out his name, and – did you notice there’s a man trying to get in the front door?” For there had been a most persistent series of dragging and scratching and knocking sounds coming from the porch.

“Yes,” said the woman. “I expect he’ll want his spot back on the davenport. But,” and here she raised her voice to make certain anyone outside could hear her, “I’m a guest here tonight, and he can just content himself sleeping on the porch. He gave up his spot, after all,” she added.

The scratching stopped. A moment later there was a great crash.

“I expect he has fallen down the stairs again,” the woman said.

Who?” said her husband.

“He can have the davenport back in the morning,” was all she said before curling up and going to sleep. Her husband stood by the window another moment. Jessie could see the outline of his broad and friendly face in the moonlight. Then he turned and disappeared.

Jessie and Henry James Cordyce sat up in the dark.

“I suppose we ought to run away,” whispered Jess, so as not to wake the two younger children. Violet had wound her enormous braid over her eyes and mouth, so that the only part of her face that was still visible was her nose, which just peeped through the coils of her dark hair.

“How tiresome,” Henry James Cordyce said. “But I suppose you’re right. We’d better be far gone before morning, or they’ll give us to the grandfather.”

Jessie sat still for a moment. “We’ll take the loaves of bread,” she said, “and Violet’s workbag. And you can bring your knife, Henry, and I’ve got what’s left of Father’s money in my pocket.” She drew it out and counted it in the dark. It was almost four dollars.

“We should bring Father’s bottle with us, too,” Henry James Cordyce said.

“What on earth for?” Jessie asked.

“In case one of us has to become a drunk,” Henry James Cordyce said. Jessie thought a minute, then nodded.

“I hadn’t thought of that. Better to be prepared. You might have to carry Benny until he gets waked up, though,” she said. “If he gets waked up now, he might cry, or he might –”

“I know,” Henry James Cordyce said. “I’ll carry him.”

Jessie unwound the braid from around Violet’s face. “Sh – Violet – come! We’re going to run away,” she whispered.

The little girl sat up obediently and said nothing. “Carry this,” said Jessie, handing her the workbag.

Jessie walked very carefully over to the kitchen table and pulled the two loaves of bread out of the bread-box. She slipped them into the laundry bag she had slung around her shoulder, then tip-toed over to the counter and dropped two small, clean towels and a cake of soap into the bag. Here were the other things she carried: A box of matches, two half-full liquor bottles, a blank diary, a side of salt pork, three dogs’ teeth, and a prayer-book.

“Someone pick up Benny,” she said.

“I said I could carry him,” Henry James Cordyce said, startled. “I never said anything about picking up him. That’s an entirely different proposition.”

Everyone turned and looked at Benny, who was sleeping on his side. “I suppose none of us have ever had to pick up Benny,” Jessie said after a minute.

“Mother could have,” Violet said.

“Mother might could have,” Jessie said. “She never did.”

“I think she could have,” Violet said.

“Mother isn’t here, and anyway, everyone knows you can’t use a mother’s help to run away. And don’t say a word about asking Father,” Jessie warned. “He’s dead, and we ought to leave him alone.”

Their father, who had gotten in through the front door and was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the davenport, turned and waved. “Good luck running away, children,” he said to them.

Do be quiet,” Jessie whispered harshly. He grinned. “I won’t wake the old woman, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he said. “She’s asleep like the dead. The trick to picking up Benny has always been to make him think it was his own idea.”

This turned out to be quite right. Henry James Cordyce bent over Benny and thought very hard about how much Benny would enjoy being picked up and carried in his sleep, and found that Benny weighed no more than an ordinary five-year-old boy when he wrapped his arms around him.

Jessie adjusted the laundry bag across her shoulders, turned the front doorknob ever so softly, opened the door ever so slowly, and the four of them filed out in a ghostly procession. They were met with four or five of their fathers cartwheeling down the front steps. Each of them snapped to attention as the children passed by.

“Good luck,” their father said, his teeth gleaming in the dark. “Won’t you open that door again, and let me back in the house?”

Henry James Cordyce shook his head. “There’s already one of you in there, and the bakeshop woman deserves a fair fight.”

“Then will you give me one of those bottles sweet Jess has got hiding in her laundry-bag?” asked another, very politely.

Henry James Cordyce shook his head again.

“Will you see to it that I’m buried properly?” asked a third. “Will you stay in town – hidden, if you like – at least until the funeral is over, and see to it that I’m done right by?”

But the children just looked straight ahead and walked down the steps. Their fathers hurled a few cheerful rocks at them, but didn’t place a single foot off of the stairs, and didn’t follow them a single pace down the path. One of the rocks hit Violet in the head, and she swayed a little before blinking and walking on.

“The next time we meet,” one of their fathers called from the front porch, which was rapidly being swallowed by darkness, “I expect you’ll have a bottle saved for me.”

After a few minutes of silent walking, Henry spoke. “She may wake up before morning, you know. We must do most of our walking before then, before anyone finds out where we’ve gone.”

“How far can you carry Benny?” asked Violet.

“Oh, at least a hundred miles,” Henry said.

“Then let’s walk a hundred miles,” Violet said.

“You are game, Violet,” Henry said in admiration. So they set out to walk a hundred miles away from their father and the old woman sleeping on the davenport.