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The Orphan Game

Chapter One

My father thought land would make us wealthy, and wealth was what he wanted. Although when I was growing up we lived all right off my father's business, although we lived as well as our neighbors, my father wanted more. He wanted something better than our one-story, ranchstyle home. He wanted a mansion on a hill, with brocade drapes and chandeliers, and long before anyone knew what microwave was, my father wanted an oven he'd heard about that left food hot and plates cold. Like everyone we knew, he wanted his children to go to college and to marry into families better than his. And he wanted land because he thought land, the right piece of it anyway, would make him rich.

My mother had her dreams, too. She wanted a better class of clients and a kitchen with all new appliances. She wanted beautiful weddings for her daughters and, for her son, a daughter-in-law she could trust, and like most people, she wanted the finer fife she believed others lived. It's true, I'd heard my mother say she wanted only what was in her reach, what she could put her tape measure around and chalk and mark and alter to her taste. But she said that only when she fought with my father, and she fought with him, I think, because she feared the risks he was willing to take for wealth. Well, that's my guess anyway.

We were living in Temple City then, on a street of vacant lots and pink and green stucco homes. My father had his paving business in town. My mother had her dressmaking business at home, and we owned a house with rooms enough for my brother and sister and me and an acre of citrus--orange trees that had gone black without water. (It didn't pay, my distant relation, known in our family for her wayward ways. When I met her, she was widowed and lived in a small house on a lot my father hoped someday to turn a profit on. She paid us a little rent and just by living there, my father said, kept vandals off the property.

The day I met Mrs. Rumsen, my father and I had done more than view the burned-up hills. That day, I'd driven my father through neighborhoods where the ashes were still wet, and when we'd had enough of blackened chimneys and exposed plumbing, when we had seen the blue and red remains of children's toys and the pink and yellow tatters of a singed quilt, my father had said, "Move over, sport," and taken the wheel the way he always did. I thought he'd head for home, maybe stop for an Orange Julius, but instead he headed up into the canyon and back a dirt road. He drove so we hit the ditches and bounced in our seats, as if we had a jeep and not an old Pontiac, but maybe that's the way you drive a dirt road.

'We're not going home?'

"I just want to check," he said, on that place I rented to the Rumsen woman.

That place was another of the lots my father had bought with borrowed money. He asked me if I didn't remember it, and I said, "Maybe." But all I could remember was the smell inside of beer and burned firewood. It smelled like late nights at the beach, with guys and blankets and fires. I remembered that smell and then the look on my mother's face when she saw the rusted Pabst cans and the overturned furniture, the signs that someone had broken in and partied inside our new debt.

"So who's been sleeping in our house?" she had said, wrapping her arms close around her and nudging an empty beer can with the toe of her shoe.

"That's the last thing to worry about, Marian. Cleaned up, this place is going to sell so fast. Everyone'll be wanting land here. You'll see.

The day my father took me to meet Mrs. Rumsen, we'd had the place about a year, but no one had made an offer. 'What I think is we've got to fix it up before it will sell," he said, as we turned onto the drive. Cheatweed and knot grass whisked the bottom of the car, and a branch of scrub oak caught on the windshield, its leaves ticking against the glass.

"I want to get the guys out here when we're up on the work," he said, father said, running the drip pipes.) "One of these days," my father said, -I'll clear the land and sell it, and we'll live someplace better."

Every chance my father got, he was out walking the perimeters of some piece of property, calculating the interest rate and the taxes and the resale value and the chances that the next shopping mall or housing development would go up right there. He crisscrossed Los Angeles County and San Bernardino, hunting down lots he thought he could buy cheap and sell dear. He meant, as I understand it now, to buy with borrowed money, make a profit off the sale, and borrow again for the next property, amassing money by degrees. Except expenses were always higher than he expected and profits always lower, and although my father promised my mother the next deal would make us rich, the next deal always seemed to push us deeper into debt.

Of course, I understood none of this then, when I was still sixteen. As far as I knew all families lived from loan to loan, and to me my father was like any father, my mother like every mother. All I really knew of them was that they interfered with what I wanted, and what I wanted was to be free. After all, I was a girl in high school, heady with God knows what and ready to try, in the absence of adults, the privileges adults reserve for themselves: drinking, driving, and sex.

It couldn't have been true, but it seems to me now the only thing I thought about then was this boy I was seeing and what I wanted to do with him in the dark. Maybe that's why I paid no attention to the risks I took or, for that matter, to the risks everyone else in my family was taking. Maybe that's why I was so unprepared for what followed, for what happened the year my father was teaching me to drive.

It was 1965 going on '66, a dry year, and on the radio we kept hearing about brush fires out of control in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. A few times we heard the fires burned so close to yards and houses that the people who lived there had to abandon their homes and wait it out in one church or another. And although the fires seemed far away, they were close. Close enough that in the right wind we could smell brush burning. Close enough that on Saturdays when my father wanted to see how I handled a car, he had me drive him toward Azusa, where we could view the range of charred hills.

It was a Saturday like that my father took me to see a Mrs. Rumsen, a woman I'd heard about but never met before. I understood she was a...

Excerpted from The Orphan Game © Copyright 2012 by Ann Darby. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

The Orphan Game
by by Ann Darby

  • paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0688177824
  • ISBN-13: 9780688177829