The small boy breathed heavily, in and out, his spine against cool, damp bricks. The pungent scent of revenge, the sharp taste of family honor swirled around him in the dark alley, puddling in frenzy, like a sudden urine release around the boy’s pant legs and worn leather boots. Silhouetted in the smoky gas lamps from the street, thirteen demon shadows advanced: rival urchins from Rum Street. The boy recognized their sticks — he’d felt their lash before — could see the glint of broken beer bottles in their hands. Anger, fear, and inevitability, too, seemed to descend from the red, evening sky, wafted by rows of thrice soiled underwear hanging from the clotheslines above.
The line advanced, but he held steady. Rhythmically, he beat fist on thigh — one, two, three — one, two, three. Somewhere behind his lower left incisor, a tooth worked free of his jaw. He spit it out.
No cowards here.
“Run, Jimmie! They’s after you.” It was Bocephus, his sidekick until the going got going. He screamed and danced behind the line of Rum Street demons, well out of reach.
Bo’s cry, though, halted the demons progress for the briefest of seconds. Distracted, fearful of the threat of ambush, they glanced at each other in confusion.
Jimmie saw his chance, and sprang upon his antagonists with a mighty wail.
Somewhere in the Bronx, Jimmie’s cry fell upon the ear of a young mother, who jumped at so pitiful a sound on sweet summer air, and, concerned it was the cry of her week old child, rushed to her crib, only to find her sleeping peacefully. On Madison Avenue, a smartly-dressed broker heard the wail also, and leaned out of the coach to chastise the young driver to grease the damned wheels. And on the wharf, every dock-walloper unloading the scow Stevens’ Crain, thinking the shift whistle had blown, pulled flask and lunch sack from their overalls, only to be wailed upon themselves by the blackjack of the union boss.
The broken bottle had left its mark on Jimmie’s face and blood stained his shirt like the background of a Munch painting. The salt taste in his mouth, the sight of his blood on Irish chests maintained anger at a frenzied level. He struck blindly, madly at the wave of the children’s crusade, each hand hefting a brick. The teeth sailed like winter snow.
At the entrance to the alley, the crowd swarmed like vultures on roadkill. They jeered and yelled, sometimes for the one, sometimes for the many. One, though, stood apart, his back to the fracas. He was a young man of perhaps sixteen, with the hard city look on his face. Bright dreams of indoor plumbing lit his eyes. One hand was raised, holding dollar bills tightly clenched.
“Five to one says the little guy’s dead meat!” he yelled at the crowd. Bills were proffered and accepted, but when he turned to watch the fight, his smile dropped like the price of imported Listerian cheeses.
Jimmie emerged from the alley alone. Clothes tattered, face a mask of blood and shining blue eyes. He smiled a wide grin. “Them micks can’t get the best of me, see?” he said.
“Aw, hell! A week’s pay.” The young man doled out his losses to the hungry crowd. “Why didn’t anyone tell me it was you scrapping?”
“What the hell, Pete. You’d still bet against me.” Jimmie wiped an arm across his face. His nose drooped like wet dough.
One figure emerged from the crowd, counting his winnings. Tall, with the dirty shirt and the jeans of a roustabout, he cuffed Jimmie soundly on the head, then spit in his hand and drew it back over his scalp, smoothing grey hair.
“Fighting again?” the man said. He shook his head. “Always fighting,” He cuffed him again, just for good measure.
“Ah, Father. Hell!” Jimmie swore as his father grabbed his ear and swung him around toward home.
“And if you tell the love of my life, your lazy mother, about this dough, I’ll lam the everlasting hell out of you,” he said, cuffing him every few feet and they walked.
“Fighting again?” The slap by Jimmie’s mother dislodged a tooth that arced gracefully to clatter in kitchen’s porcelain sink. The rest of Jimmie went ass over teakettle, landing in a heap in between his sister, Maggie, and the high-chair of his baby brother.
She was a mountain of flesh, his mother, with heavy chins firm and dense as bread loaves stacked on a kitchen counter. She took a long, breath, deep enough to pop ears in the small kitchen, then rolled up her right sleeve, revealing a dainty tattoo on her wrist that read, in Listerian, “Wash to here.”
“Ain’t you got no respect for your poor mother?” she cried. “I slave –”
Father’s upper cut ended Mother’s sentence fragment and she ended up a moaning pile on the floor. “You should be cooking dinner anyways, not beating kids.”
“Go to hell,” she wailed. He tried to kick her in the ribs, but his foot returned without a shoe, lost in the folds of flesh and fabric. “There’s nothing to eat!” Mother yelled.
That was when Jimmie’s father really became angry.
Two days later, Jimmie’s little brother, the poor babe, died. Mother had him carry the small coffin to the trash bin in the alley, telling him that’s what they had to do. They couldn’t afford a funeral. It would be all right. The coffin appeared unusually light, for a child who had survived well on breast milk for five years. When he asked his mother about this, grief stormed out of her like a spring nor’easter. It lasted a good while.
“God works in mysterious ways,” she told him between snivels.
Jimmie decided He must, indeed, for they ate well for two weeks.
“Turkey,” his mother said. “Caught him in the alley last night.” Jimmie had never seen a real turkey, except in books, but he didn’t think they had four legs.
“The ones with fingers are wings,” Mother said, wiping beer foam from her moustache.
He noticed she ate none of the meat herself. She subsisted entirely on the sourdough bread starter that she kept on the kitchen or mudroom windowsill, whichever had more direct sunlight. Jimmie thought the loaves that came from her starter were magical, as its products, once mixed and baked with her loving attention, produced loaves of green, and yellow, and crimson. The crimson was his favorite, as no more than three slices would give him dreams that lasted all night — and most of the following day.
One morning, as dawn peeked through the kitchen window, he found Mother crying and wailing over her beer. Father was dead, she told him. He’d died before finishing the black loaf of bread she’d baked him, though he’d apologized profusely for the indiscretion. There was nothing that could be done; they’d have to make it on their own.
“I cleaned him up,” she said. “Spare change went for rent. His concealed weapons are in the drawer next to the icebox. Clothes to the Salvation Army.” She was a strong woman, Mother was, but Jimmie wondered how they would survive. “And oh,” she added. “When I took the body to the alley, I caught another turkey.”
They had plenty of turkey, enough for months.
“Tastes like this turkey’s been drinking gin,” Jimmie said.
“Shut up, or go to hell,” cried Mother.
And so they grew, Mother in size and Jimmie and Maggie — up. Jimmie became a mean-spirited lad, proud of his fists and the fact he had only one visible scar. With Pete’s help, he got a position, eventually, that kept him off the streets. It was in finance, he said, “Practicing hortation. I get paid or you get laid out. ” He worked nights for a bloke named Dick.
Maggie blossomed into a beauty of pale features. She acquired employment in a garment factory, sorting buttons for an overweight owner who rarely worked her past midnight, and personally invested her wages so she didn’t squander them. She thought him generous for that.
She took a fancy to Pete, who seemed to spend more and more time in their apartment. He had grown into a handsome gentleman who wore fine clothes. With the help of a Hamscot Street benefactor, Pete started his own finance business, and his colorful stories of the busy world of investment and portfolio management thrilled Maggie. She sat in rapt attention at the kitchen table, hands in her lap, eyes affixed to Pete.
“The mug wanted a two grand for a bar called Jack Rabbit Slims, and I says it ought to be on Easton Square for that price. But I says, ‘Sure, we got a contract, and it’ll be a two hundred a week for a year, see?” Pete said, pausing only to finish his beer bucket. “Three months later, he says he won’t pay anymore, that I gots my investment back, the rat. So I breaks four fingers and the mug cries like he ain’t got another six. Six works just fine, see?”
He wavered in his chair as he shook his head. “Next week, I’ll tell him the de-fault is yo-fault. An’ it’s no bar, but a sand bar in the river for him. See? The river. Business ain’t no free ride, and I want to be on the heap. Top of the heap!”
Sitting so peacefully in the kitchen with Pete and Jimmie, listening over the throaty snore of Mother in the overstuffed lounger, Maggie marveled. How different Pete’s life was from hers. His was a world of money, of gentlemen bankers with top hats, where wealth piled like the winter snows that covered the ugliness of life. And her, a poor garment factory worker. She felt unworthy to look into his eyes.
Some nights, her shame prevented her from leaving the squalor of her mother’s bedroom. She would drag her sleeping blanket near the door, to hunch in her torn, cotton nightshirt, peering into the light, and hoping not to miss a single word of his stories. During the day, at work, she arranged buttons in his name and dreamt what it would be like, walking down the street with him, arm in arm, with merchants groveling behind, begging mercy.
“Mag’s a looker, a real looker,” Pete said one night as he sat at Jimmie’s table. It was Thursday, and tin beer buckets lay empty and scattered around the room.
“Hell,” Jimmie, groaned, face down on the kitchen table. He shook his head from side to side. “Too many beers for you.”
“Naw, naw. Not the beers. She’s a looker for real.”
Jimmie wet-belched and sat up quickly, then struggled to his feet. With a quick laugh, he lunged toward Mother’s bedroom door. Poor Maggie had no time to respond. The door caught her in the head, knocking her back into the room.
“Ow! Hell, Jimmie,” she cried.
“What you put your bed behind the door for? Twerp.” Jimmie pulled her to her feet and dragged her into the bright, gas-lit kitchen. “This Maggie? A looker?”
He held her up so her feet barely touched the floor. The nightshirt bunched around her neck, and she tried to pull the lower hem down. Shame burned in her cheeks.
“Hey, Mag,” Pete fingered his collar to swallow, then twisted his tie. “How ’bout walking them gams to the Joint, see? Like tomorrow night?”
Maggie hardly slept at all, excitement and anxiety like an electrical current in her body. She was the first in line at 6 am when the garment factory gates were opened, and even had the confidence to steal a calico dress from the shipping room for the occasion. Giddy and alive with anticipation, she could hardly wait for Pete to arrive.
He appeared promptly at nine, wearing a wool jacket and waistcoat, his eyes bright and wet from what Maggie detected as beer and absinthe chasers. He escorted her down the street, graciously kicking only the bums who begged for handouts. He even lifted her over a pile of horse manure in the street outside the Joint.
The nightclub was thick with smoke and the scent of beer, both original and regurgitated. The tables were full of laughing men and fancy ladies singing in unison. Pete guided her past them toward the stage, where an aging lady with white hair and rouge the color of bruise beat out honky-tonk on an old piano. Maggie had never seen such a fine place and she blushed as Pete stopped at a table up against the stage.
“This your name?” Pete asked and pointed to the dark table top.
The man seated there was older than Pete, with grey mutton chops and a wool tweed jacket. He bent over, closely, to examine the carved markings in the table.
“Pat?” the man questioned.
In what seemed an instant, Pete grabbed the back of his head and slammed it on the table.
“‘Pete,’ it says. Find your own table before I carve my name in you.” Pete turned to Maggie. “It’s a joke. Get it? Carve my name in him.”
The man, one hand to his bloodied face, vanished into the crowd.
“Damn, micks,” he said as he offered Maggie a seat. Pete pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped blood from the table. “Give us some beers. See?” He waved handkerchief like a flag, finally throwing it toward the nearest server.
Maggie waited until Pete drank his beer before she gulped hers down. Then, following his lead, she wiped her chin on her dress sleeve, smoothly, from elbow to wrist. All the while, her eyes never left him. She loved his nose, broken in all the right places; the way the scar on his left cheek turned up, just so, when he picked his teeth; the cute dabble of beer foam on his chin. When he noticed her looking, he pulled out his pocket watch and opened it. He noticed the beer foam and daintily stuck his pink tongue out, stretched it all the way to his chin and gracefully licked the foam. His tongue-tip waved at her before disappearing back into his mouth.
Maggie’s heart fluttered until she thought she would die.
As the rounds of beer became more frequent, his stories became more amusing. She listened with fascination to tales of the people he knew, and the money he’d spent on the chains that now clothed many of them in the Wellborn River.
“Working for yourselfs hell, Mag,” he said. “But someday I’ll make the top of the heap. The top, see?”
A man, drunk and unshaven, appeared next to their table. He wore a black shirt, black vest, black jacket, and brown shoes. He glared at Pete, and coughed as if gripped with catarrh.
“Damned robber rauk…rauk!” He coughed on a wad of hundred dollar bills in his hand and tossed them on the table. “That’s all I agreed to!”
“It ain’t over till I say it is. Same amount next week,” Pete snarled. He wiped Maggie’s napkin over the bills, before pocketing them. “Now beat it, Mac.”
“I’ll die before I give you another pen-n nauk…nauk…nauk,” he voice trailed off into a cough that sprayed a light coating of mucus and blood over the table. “Thief!” he managed before another spell overwhelmed him.
Maggie saw a gun suddenly appear in Pete’s hand. Cold and dark, its barrel was the size of two of Maggie’s fingers. The weapon glinted, heavy and menacing, as he drove it up into the gut of a man named Mac. His other hand pulled the man’s head down, and the shot sounded like someone spitting a watermelon seed the size of a marble. One of the lights over the stage shattered in a shower of glass.
The man named Mac dropped to the floor like a curtain weight. Pete blew across the barrel and quickly slipped the gun back in his pocket.
“Consumption will get you every time.” Pete shook his head. “And no respect for office hours. Sorry for the interruption, Mag.”
With the extra money, Pete got serious with his drinking. Maggie’s head swam with the liveliness of the Joint, and she even smoked one of Pete’s cigars. He said it would keep her sober. It didn’t.
Sometime around midnight, a fancy lady came to the table and snuggled onto Pete’s lap. Maggie immediately shook herself awake. The woman wore a low-cut red dress that barely restrained her girls, who seemed to have no trouble swallowing five silver neck chains into her cleavage. And there was even more finery. Her silver nose stud spun slowly when she breathed, like some fancy theatre marquee. Maggie suddenly felt small, viewing a life miles above hers.
“This is Nell,” Pete said to Maggie. “She runs the place.”
“You got a pretty one tonight, Pete.” Nell said and wiggled her nose as if Maggie was some stale dessert cake.
She made Maggie uncomfortable, in only her simple, calico dress. Nell’s eyes didn’t leave her as the woman twisted herself into Pete’s lap and leaned back to whisper something into his ear. Maggie shook her head to dislodge the growing tear in her eye.
“We got some business, Nell and me.” Pete grabbed Nell’s waist to lift her to her feet before he stood.
“I need help with my new furniture,” Nell said, and then, a couple of steps later turned to look over her shoulder. “A love seat from France, but they’re too far apart, and I can’t do a thing with them.”
Drool glistened in the corner of Pete’s mouth. He pulled the cash from his pocket and tossed it on the table. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Have beers.”
Maggie drank, but it did no good. Things were going so well, until now. The new life that had blossomed before just minutes before, now drowned like a fly in beer. He’d left her as alone as if still huddled behind the door to her mother’s bedroom. The gaiety and scents of the nightclub washed over her, threatened to tear her apart. She thought of Mother and Jimmie, their small apartment, her worthless job. It was all she had, all she would ever have, and she cried until her coat sleeves were soaked.
The soft hand on her arm startled her.
“Hey, great gams. Want to make a quick fifty?”
“I brought her up right, didn’t I?” cried Jimmie’s mother. “Gave her everything I could, and this is what I gets?”
“Ah, hell! You sure did, Ma,” Jimmie took a long draught from his beer bucket.
“Well, she can cry on the stones of the street for all I care. She’ll go straight to hell. Straight!”
“Just shut up.” Jimmie slapped her chins. “I swear I’ll kill the mug that’s done her wrong.”
“Lord! Every mug in town’s done her wrong. She carries more men than a streetcar. You can’t kill them all. ”
“I will. I’ll kill ‘em all.” Jimmie stormed a twisted path out of the apartment, buckets in hand. He had planned to tell Mother the building had been sold, that they’d been given a week to leave, but the time didn’t seem right. She needed another drink to understand, and he needed one drink for the courage.
The Hudson River was slate grey that night, its surface rippled with a light breeze from the north. The last quarter Beaver moon danced and shimmered, bringing the heavy scent of dead fish and the distinct taste of an approaching winter. Somewhere, a shift whistle freed the evening dock-wallopers shift, and a tugboat chugged south, chasing its own smoke.
Below the surface of that mighty river, silvery carp swam leisurely and black catfish pursued dinner, unaware of the world above. The water was cold, with the distinct taste of sea salt that hinted at the not-so-distant ocean, and the nagging debris of human carelessness suggesting the nearby culture of man.
About ten feet down, the water became inky black, but a casual, fishy observer would have noticed, just off pier 83, the gentle movement of what appeared to be the gentle waving mountain of marine plants. Closer inspection would prove it to be a man, dressed in a dirty shirt, a cheap leather coat, and thirty pounds of chain. Carplings swam past his sightless eyes and a nose broken in all the right places, and nibbled on the scar on his cheek.
The body, though, did not rest on the river bottom. It lay on more bodies, and those on more still, a mountain not of plants, but of tweed suits and squirming cravats. More and more bodies anchored by chain and concrete.
If Pete could have witnessed his final resting place, he surely would have smiled. He had reached the top of the heap.
A carriage rattled down the littered street. Dirty urchins, hoping to beg or steal a penny, ran along with it, until the driver swung his crop and swore them off. It halted before a run-down tenement, and a figure emerged, dressed in furs and high-buttoned boots. Quickly, the figure moved toward the door, but stopped to read a sign hastily nailed to the doorframe:
“This property condemned,” it read. “Keep out.”
Beneath the words, someone had scrawled “Hell.” The figure took out a hankie, moistened it with her tongue, and rubbed at the offending remark. Then, she entered and climbed the stairs to the second floor, as if she had done it many times. Turning left, she stepped over a pile of garbage and walked to the end of the hall. One door had its own sign, handwritten.
“No Mags allowed. Go to hell.”
She kicked the door open with her leather boots. The room was as she remembered, still littered with beer buckets. On the floor lay Mother and Jimmie, both unconscious, snoring heavily. She knew they wouldn’t leave.
“The mugs,” Maggie said.
She pulled a bottle from her furs. It was imported brandy, with a red ribbon around its neck. Maggie opened it and took a long draught, then sprinkled it over her mother and brother. She was more cautious of pouring a long trail of brandy from their bodies, back toward the open door. Once there, she pulled out a fine Havana cigar, bit the tip, and lit it with the flick of a kitchen match. She tossed the match to the brandy trail.
Back in her carriage, she told the driver to wait at the corner, where she blew smoke rings until smoke curled from the eaves of the apartment building. By the time she had finished the cigar, flames could be seen behind the clouded windows. A policeman’s whistle sounded, quite near.
“Home, Stephen,” she said and tossed the cigar to the street.
She thought that, perhaps, with the insurance money, she would open a garment factory.