The Orphans

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The work of Robert L. Penick has appeared in well over 100 different literary journals, including The California Quarterly, North American Review, and a previous issue of Literary Heist. He lives in Louisville, KY, USA with his free-range box turtle, Sheldon. More of his work can be found at www.theartofmercy.net

 

Just back from a too-brief lunch break, Brian climbed to the top of his stool and surveyed the people waiting in the lobby, rednecks, thugs, immigrants, and parolees. The Bowman Field Office of Driver’s Licensing was a catch basin for every segment of society he found odious. Quality citizens went to the Middletown office on the other side of the county. Looking down, he checked his footing on the top of the stool and called the next customer in his gruff, sharp tenor.

“Little man! How’s it going?” A college-age man approached him with a grin.
“Wow, that’s really original. Dipshit.” He punched the button for the shutter and the flash went off.
“Hey! I wasn’t ready yet!”
“Tough tit. See you in six years. Next batter!”

Brian barked the name of his next victim and the work day moved another tiny frog-step toward its conclusion.

“Excuse me. I’m very unhappy with my license photo.” An elderly woman had approached the counter, finished product in hand.
“Jesus, woman. I’m a photographer, not a magician. You didn’t give me anything to work with.”

He hit the flash button repeatedly, but she just stood there, blinded. Finally, he drummed his feet on the top of his perch and she fled.

Two feet, eleven inches tall. That’s .89 meters in civilized parts of the world. Brian hadn’t been left in an orange crate on the doorstep of a church, nor any other Dickensian tale. Personnel from the local hospital had delivered his minuscule bulk into the world 28 years previously. He’d been “brought up,” as it were, with a foster family: a sort-of mother, a sort-of father, and three not-quite siblings. Eighteen years later, he landed in the Louisville job market with basic office skills and an advanced malignant case of Fuck You.

His first employment, actually, was with Dos Pesos Mexican Restaurant, where his job was to walk among the tables wearing a sombrero and poncho. The brim of the sombrero was filled with salsa, and the idea was that the diners could stick their nacho chips into it as he walked by. Even worse, he was forced to wear a huge name tag identifying himself as “El Burrito.” He lasted a week, picked up his paycheck, and never ate a taco ever again. Years later, mariachi music still made him wince. It was back then he began to believe there were two types of people on Earth: boots and asses. Now he lived in his own lunar landscape, a small man in a tall land. Dwarfism breeds little opportunity but gigantic attitude.

In the office, he was feared. Not physically, of course, but because of the unrelenting caustic abuse he could unleash in torrents. “The Tiny Plague,” as he was known, was kept on the license camera because it was a good twenty (full-sized) paces from the other clerks working their respective windows. Still, he was an unsettling presence, a draft of cold air just around the corner. They could feel it blow as each citizen stalked past their stations and out the door, ruined license in hand. Best to keep “Bit o’ Fury” in the back, so his cancer wouldn’t spread.

He had worked this job for ten years. Taking the number 17 Bardstown Road bus and transferring at Taylorsville Pike, waiting for the steps to lower for him and at least once a week getting knocked around by some fool too busy to see him. Why did some people move so fast? They weren’t going anywhere special. In two years he would be thirty years old. He wasn’t rushing toward it; time careened headlong directly at him. Time spent trying to find clothes in the children’s department that somewhat resembled adult wear (in high school he’d been forced to wear My Little Pony sweatshirts, and it scarred his psyche). Step stools to reach the bathroom sink and the microwave oven in his kitchen. Climbing onto his sofa like he was a chimpanzee.

Brian hadn’t always been a bitter mass of rancor and bile. He could remember kindergarten, being merely the shortest student in class. He was a medical anomaly; nearly all his growth occurred by the age of five. By the second grade, however, all his classmates had shot upward, and he was left behind or, rather, below. That’s when the tortures began, the cruel comments and wearing the clothes that grew more age inappropriate each year. He grew only on the inside, thick as a castle wall, hard as a landlady’s eyes, impenetrable as the carapace of a tortoise. You couldn’t hurt Brian because you couldn’t reach him.

The worst people tried to convince him his body was not a deformity but, rather, a gift from God, a test of faith or measure of his moral fortitude. As if this creator God went around kicking men in the nuts and dropping pianos on debutantes as a form of moral hygiene. Only the most tormented enter heaven, according to their contorted reasoning. Brian looked at it from the other direction. God had failed the test of any deity. The proof was everywhere, on every continent and in every empty belly on Earth. As a manufacturer of reality, God was inept. And Brian was a defective product with no warranty.

Time passed, a month, a year, some spool of sameness unwound while a procession of faces presented themselves to the camera. It was monotonous. It was plodding. It was a well-worn path to the woodshed to carry back a bundle of twigs. Brian didn’t know what the fuck it was, other than unfunny. Yet he walked that path, five days a week.

One day he saw her in the lobby, a woman covered in tumors. She was about his age, with dark hair she let hang over one eye. He wondered what mechanism set her body at war with itself. He continued calling names and taking photos and grew uneasy. Then he called a difficult German name and she appeared before him.

He stared.

“Neurofibromatosis. It’s a neurological disorder, hence ‘neuro,’ that causes these cysts to clump up like cheese curds. That’s not really accurate, but it’s a good way to describe it.”
“I’m Brian. Dwarfism. Specifically, the Achondroplasic variety. I’m very pleased to meet you.”

They stood there for a time, either a minute or an hour or a day, she at the counter and he standing on his stool, and something changed for each of them.

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