By Carol MacAllister
Young James reached for his father’s hand, but Liam MacAvoy had disappeared like steam from a tea kettle. He stood alone holding his small bundle of tattered clothes, peering in through the open door of the neighbor’s flat. The older Doyle boys flashed him a smirk, as if they’d never met, even though they’d often played jackstraws together. He lowered his gaze.
“Oh Lordy. What a pitiful sight.” Mother Doyle motioned him into her kitchen. “Bring ye things son and join me lads.”
He lived with her family for nine months with no word from his father.
Early one spring morning, she nudged him awake with a heavy whisper. “Up ye go.” He slept wedged between the Doyle boys on their straw mattress.
“Pa?” For a moment he was lost in dreams, thinking his father had found a job and come X back for him. “I’m here, Pa.” He reached for the hand grasping his arm.
“Hush.” Mother Doyle steadied his step.
He woke more fully. “Where’s Pa?”
“Don’t wake me lads!”
“But…Where we going?”
“Hush I said. Just follow me.”
Why had she woken him so early?
The cold floorboards nipped at his bare feet like a kitten’s pin sharp teeth. He shuffled into her kitchen and pressed up against the narrow oak table, rubbing sleep from his eyes. A misty blanket of morning chill spread over the city. Gotham cradled her overcrowded arms of tenements.
Mother Doyle snatched the spare clothing already draped over the chair’s ladder back and hurriedly dressed him in worn tweed knickers and a white cotton blouse. The light blue plaid neckerchief matched his eyes. She hastily worked thin cotton knit stockings up his spindly legs and squeezed his feet into worn ankle boots. She paused for a moment, placed each of her opened hands on his narrow shoulders and gave a sigh. Then she squared a tweed Tom O’Shanter on his light brown hair. Her thin shaky fingers slipped into the pocket of his patched sack coat tucking away two pence and a silver medallion of the Blessed Mother.
Kathleen, her eldest, shuffled down the narrow hallway half-asleep into the drafty kitchen pulling a thin shawl over her petite frame. Her long auburn hair still braided from the night before. “What ye be doing, mam?”
Mother Doyle jumped liked a scalded cat, blocking James from Kathleen’s view. “Nothing, child.”
Mother Doyle turned aside and whispered to her daughter.
Kathleen listened wide-eyed then glanced at James with a forlorn expression. “But, mam. He’s only seven years old. How can you?”
“Someone needs to take charge. I’ll be home before long, if all goes well.”
“Now, mind me, child!”
Kathleen made the sign of the cross then wiped away tears. “Yes, Mam.”
“Mind the babies. Leave them sleep. We’ll be havin’ the morning meal later.”
“But, we’ve no food, mam. Only tea.”
“I’ll be fetchin’ some money from Mrs. Thompson for me mendin’. Stoppin’ for a sack of oatmeal on the way.”
Kathleen’s glassy eyes brightened a bit. “Think they’ll be enough for a Mertz crumb cake? Just a wee one?”
James’ mouth watered at the thought of those sugary crumbs that crunched with a sweet cinnamon taste. I hope Mother Doyle agrees, he thought.
“Not ‘til your Pa gets back to work. We’ll not be thrown to the streets.” She fingered the fine chain clasped around her neck, kissed the tiny gold cross hanging from it, then shook her head. “That evil landlord gives no mercy.” She brushed a finger alongside her daughter’s sallow cheek and tweaked her pug nose. “Ah, Kathleen, you’re a love. I’d not be managin’ without your help, lass. I’ll be fetchin’ you something special.”
She reached for her black spoon-bonnet hanging on the row of wooden pegs near the kitchen door. With a quick twist, she tied its shiny ribbon under her chin then fluffed it grandly.
“Mam. Must you do this?”
“Please, child. I have no choice.”
Kathleen whisked from the kitchen with a sob and headed back to her chamber.
“Katty.” James grew upset when she’d cried. “What’s wrong?” She’d always comforted him with a welcoming hug.
“Quiet down, lad.” Mother Doyle slipped a large knitted shawl over her slender shoulders. It masked the frayed cuffs and elbows of her waist. Her fingers worked its high collar smooth. Cotton gloves trimmed with lace leftover from her piecework warmed her aching fingers.
She grasped James and led him into the damp hallway riddled with last evening’s lingering smells of boiling cabbage and onions. His empty stomach rumbled at the sound of morning’s sizzling fatback. She cleared a path through trash scattered about with the side of her high-button shoe. Her long skirts edged past leaking pails of food scraps waiting for the curb at street side. James traipsed behind.
“Hold the banister, child.” She pinched up her hems and stepped from the third floor landing.
He grasped the iron railing and stretched out the toes of his brown ankle boots like a Highland stepper.
On the second floor landing, he sleepily pushed out both arms with a shudder like a kitten just waking, then tugged at her sea of skirts. “Where we going?”
She spoke from over one shoulder never looking him straight in the eye. “We’re going uptown… to…to visit an acquaintance.”
“Where’s the others? Ain’t dem comin’?”
“Today it’s only you and meself.” She turned aside. “We’ve business needs tendin’.”
“Will Pa be there! He said he’d come back.”
“Well.” She rolled her eyes then pursed her lips. “You’re right in that. He promised to fetch you.” She turned aside. “Indeed. It’s been months and no word. Winter’s gone and it’s time.” She bristled her shoulders then lightened her tone. “It’s a lovely soft day.”
“Time?” He tugged at her cluster of skirts again. “Is it time for Pa?”
“Just time. Now, let go of me clothing.” She muttered to herself, then shook her head. “Too many mouths to feed. Mother of God. I can’t afford even one extra…” The turkey-red shawl slipped from her narrow shoulders. She tugged it back in place as they stepped out through the front entry and stood on the crooked wooden stoop.
It’s so quiet, he thought. No racket of wagons or the hollow sound of horses’ hooves clopping along. No rattle of vendors’ carts or passersby – it was far too early for them. The damp smell of looming rain riddled the air. He looked toward the thickening ceiling of gray clouds. Thunder and lightning, he thought, and pressed against her side.
“Off we go now.” She nudged him down the four uneven steps to the planked sidewalk then paused to glance up toward White Street then over to Pearl, as if deciding which way to walk.
At that very moment, someone at an upper window tipped privy waste from a night soil pot. She grasped James by the elbow and whipped him aside, both barely escaping the foul brown sludge splattering across the wooden sidewalk. She looked up and shook her clenched fist. “Walk it down to the privy!” Then she threw back her shoulders with a huff and pulled James along. She marched him under the green canvas awnings of Crocker Printers, then past the saddle shop with its swarthy scents of leather. They skirted a closed biergarten and the fishy smelling oyster bar at number 110. When they got to the icehouse, James pulled from her grasp and stopped to glare up at the windowless building. Dead bodies, he thought. The Doyle boys said they stored them there.
“Move along, boy.”
“My neck itches!”
She ignored him.
He stretched up one short arm and wiggled his fingertips under his neckerchief as he walked. He twisted his other hand that she grasped while pulling at the tight collar of his blouse with the other, hoping she’d stop walking for a moment. But each time his pace slowed, Mother Doyle whipped him forward, forcing him to move along. He panted like an old nag struggling to keep up. His sore feet burned and his knees felt heavy. His boot tip caught the warped edge of a sidewalk plank and he stumbled. She stopped short, placed an open hand on one hip and glared down at him.
He pulled back and whimpered. “I’m tired. I’m hungry. When we be dare?”
“Ah, child. Stop your frettin’.” With a grumble, she brushed a fallen strand of hair off her glistening forehead, then re-fluffed her bonnet’s tie.
The booming voice of a milk vendor bounced off the broad brick-faced buildings. James glanced at his cart and the bony swayback then at the huge metal milk can coated in condensate like the perspiration trickling down his neck. “Mother Doyle. I’m thirsty.”
She said nothing, only tugged him along. Aromas of warm cinnamon, sugar and butter rumbled his empty stomach. Workers at the Mertz Bakery busily set out hot buns and doughnuts for the morning trade. James rubbed his nose with back of one hand and sniffled. “I’m hungry.”
His faced flushed. “Not now!”
As they passed Preston’s Dry Goods, a sign posted in its window caused her to stop and read it aloud. James dragged a finger across the sooty glass and drew an X. She snapped his hand away sharply then marched him forward past a section of quiet taverns.
Soon, storefronts lessened and homes with broad barn roofs and wide shuttered windows lined the walk. He inhaled deeply enjoying the clear air. He skimmed his feet over the smooth feel of the slate walkway imagining he was an ice-skater. The roadway broadened with colorful fitted cobblestones of light grays and blues, and flecks that glittered in the sun. I like it here, he thought, never realizing places like this existed.
At the next corner, Mother Doyle finally stopped their heated march. “Phew!” James panted while wiping beads of perspiration off his forehead with his coat sleeve then slid his cap back off wet hanks of hair. Maybe, we’re going to live here, he thought. He stared up at the street signs wondering why they had only numbers and no words. Rows of tall brownstones on each side had clean stoops leading up to second level entries. Different from the wooden ones on his block, ones mostly splintered and peeling whitewash.
“Where are we, Mother Doyle?”
She didn’t answer. Just glanced up one street and down another. She spun on her spool heels, led him in one direction, then turned around and walked him across to the other side. They stood for a moment on a new corner.
What pretty houses, he thought. Had they left New York City altogether and reached another town?
Mother Doyle let go of his hand. “You wait here.”
He glanced up at the fine homes, their fancy iron fences and pots of colorful flowers, then out into the cobblestone roadway. Everything was different and strange. He backed up. “I don’t want to.”
She yanked at his sleeve. “I have business, laddie. Do as you’re told.” She straightened out his blouse’s collar, brushed off the shoulders of his sack coat, then cupped his small round chin in one hand. “Wait quietly. This is a respectable neighborhood. Generous folk.” She made the sign of the cross. “God help you, child.”
Carol MacAllister holds an MFA in creative writing. She has published short stories for over fifteen years in trade paperbacks and small presses, winning awards and competitions. Two recent e-novels are posted online and have been well-received: Mayan Calendar Reveal and The Blackmoor Tales.