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The Piper's Christmas Gift
Atop the sewers and cobblestone, Herald Square was. Under the thickening snow, Herald Square was. Mary was. Sara was. The girls walked briskly down West 34th Street, dodging the pointed shoes that lunged their way. The men wore bowlers and overcoats, their carpet-bags bulging with gift-wrapped boxes; the women shivered under their shawls, veils pulled down from their feathered hats. They towered above the girls like Yetis, snow piled on their shoulders. Wreaths hung from lampposts that seemed a hundred feet high. Mary clutched the cloth bag that held her precious cargo to her chest, as tightly as Sara held the porcelain baby doll that was her constant companion.
You my girl, Cedric had told Mary. You guard this with your life. He entrusted her with the bag. He entrusted her with an address, and a number. If she came back empty-handed he would ball his fists and curse at her. This time he might follow up on his threats to leave them. Mary could hear Sara wheezing as she struggled to keep up. It was the year when the fires consumed San Francisco, although our protagonists knew nothing of this, and would not have cared much. Mary was just north of ten, Sara just south of eight.
The smaller girl pressed close to Mary. Her doll was buttoned up in a red pea coat stained with grime, its blue eyes glimmering over a tartan scarf. It amazed Mary how Sara could be such a girl sometimes—fanciful, soft-hearted, distracted by pretty things—but she never failed to followed her big sister’s lead without complaint. She was tiny for her age, hardly bigger’n a johnny plug, with a physical frailty often mistaken for worse ailment. Besides that, she hardly spoke, leading some to think her dull. A necklace made from string, keys, and bits of colored glass bounced around her thin neck. Her soot-black dress had grown sheer enough that Mary could see the brown skin beneath and, in place of her ruined stockings, Sara wore the Sunday Funnies. Boys in bedtime pajamas had adventures all the way up her legs. Mary pulled her sister through a line of chattering patrons outside a box office, banging knees as they went.
“What’re they going to see?” Sara asked.
Mary sighed. Here it came. The flood of questions. “They going to see opera,” she replied. “It’s rich people music made by dagos.”
Sara scrunched up her face. “I ain’t never met no rich dagos.”
When Mary looked up she stared upon chins and the underbellies of umbrellas. Electric lights hovered, watchful and aloof. The theater crowd talked excitedly in German, Italian, and New York dialects.
“What about the theaters where we live?” Sara asked, tugging on her sleeve. “Is that what they go to see? Opera?”
“Don’t talk about them theaters. They bad places. Only pagans go there.” Bad places that Cedric always stayed around, playing dice by the rathskeller with the other boys. Once in a while the door would groan open and a prostitute would appear like a divine messenger, blessing the chosen boy with a half-dollar to get her cigarettes or chop-suey. Mary knew the melodies to all the popular rags: the Buffalo, the Dill Pickles, the Do Re Mi.
“What’s a pagan?” Sara asked.
“A pagan’s a person who don’t like God,” said Mary. “They like the Devil. That’s why they go to Hell.”
“Have we ever met a pagan?”
“Why?” Mary shot back. “You wanna be a pagan? You wanna never get to Heaven? Keep talking that wickedness. See if the Devil don’t hear you.”
Mary didn’t notice the Salvation Army bell-ringer until the bell was clanging in her face. She dodged around the woman. A feeling of vulnerability made her stomach go watery. Everywhere she looked were sneering, lipless people who hated her for existing. They might call her a nigger, or kill her. When the opportunity came, she went into the streets, away from the bulk of them. The snow was thin on the cobbles, making pinwheel swirls around her toes. A stiff wind forced Mary to bow her head. Goddamn, it was cold. Nice night for Cedric to send them out while he stayed warm beside the Herald Building. When they met up again (a “ren-dez-vows,” as he called it), Mary had a mind to tell him to go dip his skinny yellow ass in the Hudson, balls first.
“Do kids still get born in mangers?” Sara asked her.
“Ain’t nobody born in mangers no more,” said Mary.
“But they got stables. Can’t the storks drop the baby there?”
“Did you say storks? Girl, you strange.”
Her foot turned on a patch of ice and she landed hard on one knee, the pain lancing down her leg. The bag flew from her hand. Within seconds it was almost hidden behind horses’ legs and carriage wheels. All she could think of was Cedric’s clenched fist as she crawled into the thoroughfare. The moment she grabbed the bag, she saw two yellow lights bearing down on her. Icicles dripped like fangs from the grill of the fast-approaching motor-car. A policeman’s whistle burst the air like fireworks, and the girl was suddenly off the ground, flung backwards, landing in a heap on the sidewalk.
Snowflakes tickled her eyelids. Bright dots peppered her vision. The gray sky circled like water down a drain, swaying right, left, right, and came to a stop. Her stomach reeled, trying to throw up the food that wasn’t inside of it. Above her stood a lanky man. His face was the color and texture of a skinned orange peel. He had slanted eyes.
“That bag must mean a lot to you,” he said, “to risk your life.”
Depending on the angle she looked from, her rescuer’s eyes were either amber or emerald, and he sported a full beard that was deep red. He could have been a dusky white man, or a light-skinned Negro, maybe even an Arab. He clothed himself in December: a Norfolk jacket and derby of jolly russet, his waistcoat mossy green, the pocket watch attached by a slender chain like tinsel. His eyebrows were the color of a roaring fireplace. Entrancing, in his overstated way, yet frightening. When he smiled at Mary, it was with teeth the whitest possible color, the kind of white that snow-hares knew of in their white dreams. He offered a hand to help her stand, extending his arm like a coast.
All of a sudden, she remembered the package. Finding it at her side, she clutched it to her chest. Cedric had given her an address, and a number, and she meant to carry out his orders. Grownups didn’t do nice things for children who weren’t their own, not unless they wanted something. Probably something dirty. As she readied her legs to bolt, she saw Sara standing in front of the man, the crown of her head reaching a hair above his knees. She looked him in the eyes, mirthful curiosity blooming like a flower on her face.
“You want to look at the toys?” the man asked her. He had a voice as dry as dust on an attic chair. His accent held a hint of the Bronx.
Sara nodded all too happily. Turning on his heel, the man strutted under a swinging wooden sign that was furry with frost, his chest thrust like he carried a rooster in his ribcage, and Sara followed. Mary’s first thought: this Oriental swami had hypnotized her sister!
Panicked, she followed them into the store, where the sight of toys scattered her thoughts like pearls off a broken necklace. They shared the room with three white families, parents and curly-haired children, and within the chocolate-brown walls was a treasure trove. On the central table was a menagerie of exotic animals. Some of them were wind-up, others string-pulled, others simple tin creations. Wooden aeroplanes hung from the ceiling, beside ice skates and sleds, pop-guns, feather headdresses, bows and suction cup arrows. The tree in the corner blossomed with nutcrackers, candy canes, angels, gingerbread houses, and baubles that reflected her face in a cucumber shape. The soapy clean smell of the store made her dizzy like the time she nipped some of Cedric’s brandy. Mary recognized certain characters, such as the Yellow Kid on a pin. The dapper-dressed insect on a board game had something to do with Oz; then there were stuffed toys, paper dolls, and tin figures depicting scarecrows, sawhorses, and lions with bows in their hair. To her dismay, Mary saw far too much Buster Brown. From board games and card decks and ceramics, Buster stared with blue eyes like wagon wheels, along with his dog that looked like something that would greet you at the gates of Hell. Here a hobby horse, there a jack-in-the-box with coxcomb hat. A gold leaf music box sat on the counter beside a bald, bespectacled, and unsmiling man.
Of all the patrons, he watched her and Sara, who was busy running from one display to the next. Mary knew what he was thinking. He wanted to protect his turf, like the little mick boys who threw rocks at them. When their eyes met the bald man lifted his nose, like she was dirt on his shoe. Not to be outdone, she sneered her lip like he was vomit.
Sara gawked at the model train zipping along the track, the way she might gawk at sausage in a butcher’s window. Stupid, Mary thought. We can’t eat toys. Then her stomach growled, and she imagined the train as a sausage link going round, and told herself not to think of food. The mysterious stranger seemed as excited as her sister, bending at the waist to inspect the tiny houses. He couldn’t have looked odder if he was walking on all fours. Didn’t anyone tell him grownups weren’t supposed to like toys? Mary wondered if he was one of those “fairies” she’d heard of. The kind who liked boys and wore women’s clothing for no money. When Sara reached to touch the passing engine car, the clerk gave a cough.
“What will you be purchasing today, sir?” he asked the stranger.
In reply, the man grinned, a glimmer in the red fur. Approaching the counter in what Mary could only describe as a saunter, he handed the owner a business card. “Professor J.M. Nesbitt, of the Church of Antiquated Theology. Also Chair of the Yonkers Spiritualist Society, and President in Absentia of the Knickerbocker Intemperance Society. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” The clerk returned his handshake with blunt formality. “Tonight my wards will be purchasing a gift of their choice. Say, could you let me have a look at that?”
He pointed to the board games on the top shelf. The clerk had to climb a ladder to get the wood-sided box, and grunted as he carried it down, much to the stranger’s amusement. “Cabin Boy,” said the clerk, showing him the box. “ ‘A rags-to-riches game of adventure on the high seas.’”
“How do you like this?” J.M. Nesbitt asked Sara.
“Is there one for girls?” she asked.
“No,” said the clerk.
“Don’t want it,” said Sara. “It’s too big, anyway.”
Mary found the whole thing absurd. Turning down toys as if this happened every day! They could sell that board game, or at least pawn it. The stranger came from a church, and now Mary knew she did not trust him. Back at the orphanage, the children would gather in the auditorium, their skin in colors of tan, brown, and black, like canned beans all dumped in one pot. Dr. Chambers would shout Bible verse at them in a Tennessee drawl, determined to save their wicked souls. The good doctor loved them the way a hammer loves a nail, and she often went to bed with the bruises of his love.
Mary was determined that they would never return to the orphanage. Even if they had to live on the streets forever. In her mind’s eye, she saw the hallway and its thin rug that bruised feet, the floors that creaked like a cry of pain. A painting of a brown-skinned angel hung over the parlor entrance, the Lord’s Prayer etched in the canvas with raspberry stitching, and the room beyond was a shadow-flooded chamber of dour portraits and divans with animal paws. She could see the wooden knob on the banister. She could see Dr. Chambers there to meet her, the Devil made flesh. The thought of him was like a knife at her throat.
It seemed like once upon a time, when she, Cedric, and Sara escaped. Autumn lay so heavy on the city that not only leaves, but whole branches, fell from the trees in Central Park. Mary learned her lessons quickly, the first being to trust no one. Only Cedric, she thought, though nowadays she found it hard. He’d taken to drinking, growing wild and mean. Cautious, Mary followed her sister to a teak bookshelf, placing her body between Sara and Professor Nesbitt. Ready to punch, kick, bite, or run, as the situation called for.
Illustrated covers faced out behind the glass. Light ran up and down a dust jacket depicting an automobile on a country road, and a circle with three smiling, cherubic faces. Mary figured that books, unlike people, didn’t need coats to keep warm, and wouldn’t that make it hard to read, anyway? On the next book over, a girl in a high-backed red chair glowered across the table at a long-nosed man in an absurdly large bowtie. Between them sat a rabbit with a most rabbity look on his face. Mary recognized Alice. The nurse at the orphanage had read them a chapter a night. Alice went to a tea party, and met the Queen of Hearts, and had her head cut off, and that was as far as Mary remembered.
Next, Sara pointed to a book with St. Nick on the cover. “The reindeer don’t actually fly,” she informed J.M. Nesbitt. “They just jump really far. And they don’t belong to Santa. They belong to another man, and they made a deal that he can only take them out once a year.”
“Is that so?” the man chuckled. “Where did you learn this?”
“A book,” she said, like the answer was obvious. She pointed to a picture of a country boy with his hands in his pockets. “Tom Sawyer!” she said, to the mysterious stranger’s delight.
Naturally, Sara cooed over the book with little white girls flouncing around in bonnets. She held up her doll baby so it could get a good look. The girls on the cover looked not unlike the girl in the sailor collar who was, at that very moment, staring at Mary like some kind of exhibit. Mary thought the bow on her head looked like a propeller. Was she trying to fly away? It only seemed fitting to stare back at the girl, who gave a satisfying gasp of shock, and dropped her book of paper dolls.
A stocking stuffer caught Mary’s eye. Holly berries decorated the cover, and within the center was a picture of a black, black boy with a red, red smile. She recognized Little Black Sambo. Reflected in the glass, Mary saw her own inky skin, wooly hair, her pea coat, her knee pants and suspenders. She was squat and big-boned, her clothes starting to sag from weight loss. Less girl than boy, less orphan than oxen. Of all the characters, only Sambo resembled her.
Once, she’d tried to make characters that looked like her and Sara. She’d colored the illustrations in the book about the boarding school, turning every pretty little white girl brown. She recalled the way Sara laughed when she showed her, as she recalled the clout on the cheek from Dr. Chambers that left a month-long bruise.
Is that me? she thought, looking at Sambo. A wild child in the wilderness, the tiger-beguiling pickaninny brought to life.
Then again, she didn’t trust books. She trusted stories. Stories were the hearth-rug and the warmth of other children pressed close. Stories made her happy. It was quite another thing to walk around with your nose in a book, your mind in some fantasy, until you ran into a wall.
The craziest part of it all was that Sara seemed so natural here, so comfortable, like she could sit down at the toy piano and play a song. Sara threw her palm on the glass, which made the clerk wince. Above her hand was a doorstop of a book decorated with rubber-faced characters that Mary recognized. She remembered staying up late to hear the final chapter. As the nurse turned the last few pages, Mary’s heart raced and she’d gripped the edge of the rug. The Good Witch gave the girl a choice, one that left Mary so upset she could not sleep at night. To choose Kansas over a magic world was disappointing, sad.
“Wizard of Oz!” said Sara.
“It’s not an Oz book.” The clerk spat out the words like they were tobacco. “Maybe wait ‘til next year when he puts one out. We got Little Black Sambo.”
Sara would not be denied. “Mister, I want Oz!”
“I believe she’s made her choice,” said Professor J.M. Nesbitt.
As the clerk rang up the book, Nesbitt said to him, “You disapprove of my wards?”
“Nothing of the sort, sir.”
“Nah, you won’t say it,” said the professor. “That’s fine. ‘Cause I think, whether you like my wards or not, you know why I buy them books. I think you woke up early when you were a kid, and crept so as not to wake up your siblings on the floor. And you ran to the dock. You could barely see through all the men, that’s how small you were. Your heart gave a trill to see the Union Jack waving in front of the sun, enough to make you scream, ‘For England!’ Before the sailors were even in earshot, you piped up, ‘What news of Little Nell?’ Am I wrong?”
The clerk’s scalp reddened. Mary had no clue what J.M. Nesbitt was saying, only that it struck a nerve in the man. Silently, he thrust a handful of coins at the professor.
“Oh,” said J.M. Nesbitt, “and could you giftwrap that?”
Once more on the sidewalk, Sara hugged her book to her chest, a treasure in string and green-and-red paper. Like her precious doll, something else for her to covet and fawn over. Cedric would be wondering where they’d gotten off to. Be back before the clock strikes the hour, he’d ordered, pointing to the twin clocks of the Herald Building. He entrusted her with an address, and a number.
“Remember,” said J.M. Nesbitt, beard bristling with an impish smile, “you can’t look at it until the twenty-fifth.”
Sara nodded. Her problem, as Mary saw it, was that she believed the stories. Right now she considered herself the heroine in a book about a girl adopted by a rich man and taken to live in some limestone chateau on Park Avenue. The world didn’t work that way. Certainly not last Christmas, when the orphans lined up in fresh-laundered uniforms to greet the founders. Mary heard they were good people. She hoped they would fire Dr. Chambers. The children sang “Jesus, Lover of my Soul” for the pair of elderly white sisters, who delivered spinning tops and rubber balls, then left in their carriage feeling quite good about themselves.
Dr. Chambers wanted good little Christians. The founders wanted to feel like Santa. The way Nesbitt’s eyes lingered on Sara made Mary picture ugly things: brown and dried bloodstains, rotting mice, black mold. This one didn’t even seem to like girls, but he had to want something.
Men’ll come up to you, Cedric had told her. He’ll want to stick his thing in you. If you make a fuss he’ll just take what he wants. Close your eyes if you gotta. Then you bring me the money. A nickel for you, the rest for me.
What if he try to hurt me? she’d asked.
That’s why you got me. He hurts you, I’ll cut his fuckin’ throat.
“That’ll be a quarter-dollar,” she told J.M. Nesbitt. Better her than Sara.
His red eyebrows rose. “For what?” he asked.
“For,” she swallowed the lump in her throat, “whatever you want to do.”
The man seemed to be without words. His eyes spoke pity, which annoyed Mary. At that moment, a carriage came charging down the street, dangerously close to the sidewalk. At the reins were two women with skin like marble, smooth and pale. One had a very long nose, the other eyes that were close together. Both wore their hair in stylish bobs. Seated in the carriage were pretty young men with top hats and Van Dyke beards smoothed with oil. They wrapped their fur coats around each other, smiling madly as they careened through the slush.
Professor J.M. Nesbitt gave a great sigh. “My dear,” he told Mary, “I am here to see the new sun. That is all.” He doffed his bowler. “Evening to you, ladies. Happy solstice.” He held out a hand, which was snapped up by one of the women. Still holding the reins, the woman lifted the tall man onto the seat with little effort. The feat of strength took Mary’s breath away. She knew where she had seen people like Nesbitt’s beautiful comrades. Magazine advertisements. Perfume boxes. Here they were in real life, sending red ribbons of laughter into the night, their carriage darting like a jackrabbit among the slower conveyances.
Creep, she thought. Like all grownups, he talked gibberish. She turned to Sara. First a doll, now a book, of all things. Even more expensive stuff to attract attention.
“I think that man was a pagan,” said Sara, gazing after him.
Mary pinched her ear hard enough to make her squeal. “Never run off like that again! What if that man was going to kidnap you? Say you’ll never do that again!”
“Never!” cried Sara.
“Come on.” She stormed off, Sara following at her heels. The crowd thinned and the girls stared up at the department store across the street, its red star shining through the snowfall. It took up the whole block, a palace that bristled with buttresses and flags, terraces and lampposts, doors and pillars, windows and awnings. A boy around Mary’s age heralded from the thoroughfare: “Extra! Extra! Harry Thaw stands trial! Jealous husband stands trial for billionaire playboy murder! Jezebel actress at the center of it all!” Sara might have gawked at Macy’s forever if Mary didn’t tug her into the street. West 34th was a stretch of churned, broken snow. This time Mary was careful, looking out for the vehicles and pedestrians that crowded like cattle ready to be auctioned. A street-sweep leaned on a broom handle to push slush into the gutter, squinting like a mole through his spectacles. Not far from him a patrolman blew his whistle at someone, before turning attention to an advancing streetcar that he waved along with his club. The police who weren’t directing traffic were busy chasing away the bums under the 6th Avenue elevated tracks. Customers hailed hansom cabs from the curb. The girls kept under the Macy’s awning. Ahead, carriages and cars were stalled in the street. Men in silk top hats leaned out from under folded covers to yell and shake their canes, and now Mary saw the source of the jam: a lame horse trying to stand on its broken leg, tangled in its own reins, young theatergoers toppled in the snow. The cloud of electric light from the opera house illuminated the animal’s wild, rolling eyes. Mary felt for the creature. It lived its whole life blinded to every direction but straight, and now they would kill it. Didn’t seem right. All the while, Sara was looking around, filling her eyes.
This was Herald Square at Christmastime. Lit up, decked out, perfumed. Let the fairies and moles have it, Mary decided. Her destination was down a back alley with walls that shut out the moonlight, the bricks soot-blackened, the snow dirt-hardened, so it seemed to her like she walked inside a piece of coal. Under her flat cap and thatch of hair was a map of fire escapes and fences, rathskellers and rooftops, paths charted in the cartography of alley cats. Behind the girls, carriages continued toward the darksome silhouettes of skyscrapers, under the disembodied light, diminishing into the mist.
Mary knocked on the window, practicing the speech she’d prepared. At the fifth knock, it slid up. The lace parted, and out came a woman’s face like a squat block set on muslin. The ancient, obese Negress squinted through her spectacles with small, piggy eyes.
Mary stood to her full height, held up the paper bag. “From the West Indian,” she said. “For the Lady of New Orleans. Five dol—”
A woman’s voice rang out from the apartment. “I am not ready for company! Theresa! They will wait until I am ready.” The Southern drawl, like Dr. Chambers’, making her cringe.
“You will have to wait,” the Negress repeated, weary resignation in her voice. Slam. Mary’s speech flopped pathetically to the rails, a broken-winged bird.
Wait, then. The iron-work under her butt was hard and rimmed with ice. She had enough experience sleeping on fire escapes to know she disliked them. She always felt like she would fall. Three stories down was the silver grass of a small backyard. Feeling her stomach lurch, she looked across at Sara. One arm around the doll, the other on her new book, she was drifting in and out of sleep.
Mary felt dizzy, calling attention to her empty belly. She knew she wasn’t really dying. It just felt like dying. Goddamn, it was cold. Bone-splitting, fingers-falling-off cold. She closed her legs and rubbed them together. She thought of Little Black Sambo, and of herself, children in the woods. Sambo tied the tigers’ tails together and they ran in a circle until they became syrup for his pancakes. Her stomach moaned.
Don’t think about pancakes, she told herself.
Someone, the nurse, maybe, or Cedric, once told her that the world outside the city was forest. Endless green hills where eagles nested and Iroquois stalked the bushes. Mary had never seen a real tree, only the flowery, girlish ones in Central Park. The only birds she knew were pigeons, and the stone owls that blinked the hour from the cornice of the Herald. The trees in the forest couldn’t be as tall as buildings. Buildings shadowed all, saw all, knew all, and to look up for too long made it hard to breathe, imagining the view from those heights.
Mary told herself to stop daydreaming, stay focused. She could be as fanciful as Sara sometimes, letting her imagination grow like jasmine and orchid and hollyhock, though hers was a garden she tended in secret. Unable to look up or down, she had to look straight at Sara, and her stupid doll, and the stupid rich man’s book.
“Give me that!” She wrestled the book from Sara. Swatting away her sister’s grasping hands, she ripped the wrapping, balled it up and stuck it in her mouth, chewing, forcing it down. Sara cried like a spoiled brat. Next Mary ate the pages, imagining them as bread filling her belly. She stopped at an illustration of a dapper man, a cherubic child, and what looked like a dog hanging from the legs of a flying flamingo. Flamingos can’t fly, she thought, and struck a match. The pages burned, illuminating Sara’s tearful face. Warmth! The book was a beating black heart feeding the flames with its life.
The window flew open. There was a white woman as shriveled as the Negress was fat, her eyes bulging in terror. Her hair was a wreath of yellow smoke around her scalp.
“Vandals!” she said, emptying a tea kettle on the book. The water hissed and steamed and melted ice. Mary and Sara put their backs to the rail. The woman grabbed their wrists and hauled them into the apartment, dropping them on the hard wood floor.
Before Mary could think to flee the old woman slammed the window. They were in a small room. A gas lamp in the middle of the floor cast light on the thin, expressionless faces of six small girls.
“Theresa!” said the white woman. As she pushed them through the family room, fingernails like daggers at their backs, Mary watched the girls seated on pallets around a pile of garments. They were stunted, and wore headwraps, and stared at Mary with raccoon eyes set deep in sunken faces, while mechanically sewing lining on coats and trousers. The place smelled of damp earth and fried fish. “Theresa! These vandals lit the fire escape on fire!” Smell of old clothes and sweat. One of the girls had a crate nailed together around her scrawny ankles.
Into the kitchen, where the Negress and five girls were seated at a round table, making flowers from scraps of red and green paper. Their finished bunches were piled in the center. The sight of the sisters made the Negress stop in mid-drink, shot glass poised on her bottom lip. “You brought them in here?” she said.
The white woman thrust the kettle imperiously at the Negress, splashing a fat drop onto the woman’s leg. Theresa closed her eyes and made a murmur, deep in her throat. The kitchen smelled of mildew and cooked meat. From the thin walls came clanking, stomping, screaming, water sputtering from a sink; the gruesome sounds of the tenement.
“These two little monkeys were lighting our fire escape on fire! I caught them. Oh, you two will be punished!”
Mary took note of how many people were there, the available exits, how quickly she could reach the knives and scissors on the table.
On the ironing board was a cage that was too small for the live rabbits stuffed inside of it. They writhed and tumbled in a furry mass. There was a gas stove that looked like the bottom half of an egg perched on three legs, and Mary knew what the rabbits were for. Her mouth went dry. She took her crying sister’s hand and readied for whatever would come. They could still make it out of the tiger’s den.
“Miss Evangeline,” the Negress wiped her hands on her apron, “these are the messengers with the package. You weren’t supposed to bring them inside.”
Her mistress’ eyes went wild. She turned this way and that, dressing-gown sweeping the floor, her hands out like lobster claws. Finally, she clamped them on the shoulders of the nearest girl, as if she might strangle her. Instead, she stroked the child’s head. The terror stayed frozen on the girl’s face.
“Oh, silly me,” said the Southern woman, adopting a sing-song lilt. “Welcome, little darlings. I am glad to have your company, as are my granddaughters.” She waved a hand at the dusky-skinned girls. “Why, Theresa, what a goose you are. You could have brought our company inside if you knew they were going to light our fire escape. Tell me, what if there was a fire? Where would we escape to, if the escape is on fire?”
Flies buzzed around the ceiling cracks. Mary hopped from foot to foot, giving them a moving target. She hated flies worse than ants.
Theresa lowered her head. “I’m sorry, Miss Evangeline.”
“I said I was not ready. I never said they could not come inside. Having a conflagration on the side of your house does seem a bit conspicuous, does it not?”
“Yes, Miss Evangeline.”
All the while, the children kept their eyes on their work. They coughed and scratched at their arms. Mary worried she might catch something. Two things she knew: these kids were not the Lady’s grandchildren, and the title “Lady of New Orleans” was not meant in respect.
“Now,” said the Lady, “as I am still not ready for company, you two arsonists will entertain Theresa for a minute.”
While the Lady spruced in her bedroom, Mary and Sara put their backs to the wall. Theresa moved as if the years of her life were shackles, and placed the tea kettle back on the stove. The woman started a pot of oats, mixing it with a can of Borden’s Evaporated Milk. Where she walked, the flower-makers cringed at the touch of her shadow. Mary did not know what frightened her more: this sweatshop or the giant black woman. With a great creaking of wood, Theresa settled her bulk back down in the rocking chair. She poured herself a shot of John Jameson’s and threw it back, her throat pouching in and out like a frog’s. She swallowed, grit her teeth, wiped her lips, and fixed the girls with a piggy stare.
“How much the West Indian asking for them pictures?” she said. “That’s what in the bag, by the way.”
“Five dollars,” said Mary, putting bass in her voice. Cedric entrusted her with a number, and she meant to collect.
The woman flicked her finger like there was dirt in her nail. “You get three.”
“Huh?” said Mary. “That ain’t right.”
“How do you figure, child?”
Three was enough for Mary, if it meant getting out of there. But Cedric said five. She thought quickly. “How much do your girls make on flowers? Five cents a gross? Well, it takes an hour just to travel from the Tenderloin to—”
Theresa’s groan sounded like it came from deep inside a cave. “Quiet, child,” she said wearily. “You trying to haggle? That’s good you got some brass in you.” She poured another shot. “The West Indian been getting his garments done here for a long time. Longer than you been on this Earth, I reckon. And I want you to tell him something.” Her eyes narrowed. “Long as we know him, he never cheat us. Now he sends us truants like y’all asking half a month’s rent for a bunch of photographs. I know he thinks Miss Evangeline’s going dull in the head. You tell him she ain’t dull, and she ain’t idle. Just like you got your master, I got my mistress, and I won’t see her taken advantage of.”
Mary clamped her lips together. She was holding back tears. Miss Evangeline’s door opened, and the woman posed in chinchilla.
“Smile, child,” Theresa whispered to Mary.
The Lady’s room reminded Mary of a hearse, its small confines decorated in lace and Shuttlesworth plates, candles and saints, a full wardrobe, and photographs on the shelves and floor. The Lady was the corpse sprawled among the pictures in her bed. “Bourbon Street,” she sighed. “Canal Street. Lake Ponchaitrain.” Her hand fluttered to her chest. “Taken by a true Louisianan. Theresa, do you remember Louisiana?”
“I do, Miss Evangeline,” Theresa said, standing by the door.
“Theresa’s been with me my whole life.” Her voice went thick with reminiscence. “She’s always belonged to my family. She was just the wildest thing you ever saw. Those were our golden days, down there in N’Orleans. A regular Arcadia.”
Now Mary saw the little girl lying on the corner of the bed. Hands clasped prayerfully under her cheek, her eyes showed nothing. Mary could hear her own heartbeat pounding in her ears.
“Your family was good people,” she heard Theresa say. “Christian people.”
Good people didn’t run sweatshops, Mary thought. They didn’t truck in flies and fear, sick children and paper blossoms. Beating weak beneath that scrawny, freckled chest was a heart rimmed in frost. Mary loathed the both of them.
The Lady threw up the photographs to let them fall like pillow feathers. “You,” she said, gesturing to Sara, “Baby Doll. You look ready to freeze to death.”
“I-I am cold, ma’am.” The words came shivering out of Sara.
Propping her chin on an elbow, the Lady looked at her wardrobe. “Theresa, correct me if I’m wrong, but are those two children’s coats in the wardrobe? Bring them to me.”
The fat woman’s bottom lip quivered. “Miss Evangeline, I don’t know if that’s right.”
“Please don’t be willful, Theresa. There’s two girls’ coats right there. I see them with my own eyes. Here we have two girls, and they are cold. It’s the Christmas season. Let it be said the Lady of New Orleans is a charitable soul.”
“Miss Evangeline, these coats…” Theresa choked on the words, as if about to cry. “Do you remember…”
“Shut up and bring them, please.”
Another gift, this one more sinister than the last. Made of red velvet, the coats flared down from the neck like tea-bells. White fur lined the hood, cape, and cuffs, and the cape tied at the throat. On the lady’s instruction, the girls put them on. For all their wear, they were the finest clothes to touch Mary’s skin. The sleeves were a little long; the down on the inner lining felt like a soft, furry animal brushing against her knuckles. When she put her hands together the sleeves touched like she wore muffs. Heavy and light at the same time, the coat enveloped Mary in warmth.
“Lovely as two winter roses,” said the Lady. “I bet the most you hoped for was a tip. Well, I would say you got a great deal more. Just like a Christmas story. Farewell, my turtle-doves. Now,” she turned to her bed-warmer, “give them their five dollars, Theresa.”
“Yes, Miss Evangeline.” The fat woman ushered them, none too gently, from the room.
“Oh, Topsy,” the Lady muttered, wrapping her arms around the girl. “Topsy, Topsy, Topsy. I do wish you could still do a summerset.”
Theresa closed the door behind her. Finding her shot of whiskey filled with drowned flies, she dumped it on the floor, then poured another glass. The former slave did not sit, but stared at the sisters, condemningly.
“Where’s our money?” said Mary, hearing anger in her voice. This woman had no right to keep them a moment longer.
“Shut up,” Theresa said. “Her family was good, Christian people. Never beat nobody.” Her eyes glazed over. “When she was ‘bout your age, she got sick. I climbed right into that bed with her. I wanted to take the sickness into me. Better I die than she. She lived. Was my love brought her back from the gates. Them coats you wearing got us all the way from Louisiana to Boston. All them men fightin’, ain’t a one know’d there was a little White girl and nigger girl under there.” She drank the shot. “Other words, don’t you lose them coats. Else I’ll find you. What did you see here, girls?”
“Nothing,” Mary answered.
“Damn right, you didn’t.” For a moment she stared at the wall in some deep reflection. Mary wondered if she should take the opportunity to bolt for the door. Theresa began to shake like a woman possessed, overwhelmed with a dark passion. “Children can’t never keep their mouths shut. Y’all’s raggedy asses is orphans. Ain’t nobody gonna miss y’all.” She picked a carving knife off the table. “Don’t run. The door’s bolted. Don’t move.”
The world slowed. Five girls dove from their stools to huddle under the ironing board. The floor shook as the large woman advanced. Mary threw herself in front of Sara. Light flashed along the blade, and above it she saw starbursts of frost on a window.
“Think you can take what is mine?” said Theresa. Unbidden, Mary pictured the face of the stranger. Bearded, friendly, yet strange. That automobile was barely a foot away from her. She should have died, but he was there at the right place and time.
They should have died that night their bellies were so empty that she and Cedric were eating mud, forcing Sara to gag it down. That was when a Kentucky woman, on her way home from the laundry, offered a place to stay. For a few nights, they lived and ate with the Ruggles, and their nine children, and the boarders who slept in the lofts. The Ruggles hung stockings over their hearth. Mary braided the girls’ hair. It was like having a family.
Mary should have at least been arrested that time in Central Park, when she wrestled the doll from the white girl’s arms. An impulsive, stupid thing to do; stealing a toy simply because Sara said she wanted it. The act earned Mary a riding crop across the back, a scar like a crescent moon, but Sara got her little princess. Even Cedric couldn’t force them to pawn it.
That day Dr. Chambers beat Sara, thoughts of escape had Mary up at night. She was awake when she saw one of the boys sneaking around the girls’ dormitory like a shadow moving on its own. He was a “lawdly” boy; tall, strong, and light-skinned. He could protect them. Waiting for him to head for the door, she was surprised when he unlatched the window, pushed it open, and poised in the moonlight. Cedric was not a kind person. She knew this now. He should not have let them go with him, but he did.
A four-foot jump from the ledge to the next rooftop. Beyond that, freedom. Within the cloud of city noise she heard drunks cursing, cats screaming, and a railroad whistle. Cedric leapt and landed on the other side in a roll. Mary had to push the hysterical Sara into his arms. Factory smoke concealed the stars. Chimneys and unfinished brick walls rose from the rooftops like curls on Mary’s own head. The buildings kept multiplying until the end of sight. She said a prayer and jumped. She flew.
Now Theresa was advancing, and Mary’s back hit the wall. The woman vanished and there was only the knife, the hand, the arm. Mary and Sara should have died in the streets, but someone watched over them. They could die in the tenement, or they could be like the little rabbit in the story. Spotted by the farmer, he hid in the watering can, upset the potted plants, dove under the fence and was gone.
Little Sambo was wild and black like her, but he still tied the tigers’ tails.
Sara shoved the doll into Mary’s arms. Mary threw it at the woman, but it went over her shoulder, missed her by a good foot. Its scarf unraveled, revealing bow lips, rosy cheeks, wildly fluttering eyelids. The doll’s collar caught on the latch to the rabbit cage, and pulled it open as it dropped. Emancipated vermin dove onto the table, into the center of the flowers. Paper petals filled the room. They swirled like confetti, and fell soft as eyelashes on the cheeks of the girls under the ironing board. Swatting at the petals, Theresa heard her mistress screaming to know what the matter was. She could not see those two horrible children through all the red and green. Moments later, the flowers settled on the floor, aftermath of a crimson blizzard. The rabbits were gone. Theresa could hear her neighbors stumbling around in the hall outside, and the weeping voices of girls she knew.
The Herald Building stood like a great jewel-box at the triangle point of the intersection. True to their clockwork, the owls on the ledge marked the hour with electric light from their eyes. In the center of the cornice, two tough little bronze men swung their sledgehammers at the bell, the gong like so loud it made the shoppers’ ears ring; standing over the hammer bearers was the goddess Minerva, blessing them and all laborers. Certain shoppers noticed a black boy leaning against the granite pedestal of a statue. Dancing in place to keep his blood flowing, he was muttering curses.
Maybe some of them saw him curse at two girls in old and beautiful coats, their faces obscured by fur lining. Maybe others saw one of those girls push him to the concrete and run him off. Maybe others would swear he stood there for hours, awaiting someone who never showed. Maybe others saw girls with shrouded faces walk hand-in-hand into the Macy’s, a vision of sisterly love out of a storybook. Maybe others saw them step into a hotel, where the concierge was expecting girls whose coats matched that very description, and without looking at their faces offered them a canvas-back dinner. No one would swear these girls stepped onto a wagon at Greeley Square, the driver a gentleman clothed in December, for if they saw such a thing, they forgot. And of the Negroes taking the trolley car home—the waiters and porters, the hackmen and dreymen, the cooks and bellhops—some claimed they saw two such girls making the long trek to the colored neighborhood. It is hard to say. Herald Square is so very large, and New York City larger still, and there are so many little girls.