Authors: Maggie Osborne
Tags: #General, #Romance, #Fiction, #Contemporary, #Adult, #Irish Americans, #Polish Americans, #Immigrants, #New York (N.Y.)
Determination firmed the lines of Lucie's mouth. "I'll find something," she said brusquely. "Tomorrow we begin saving for your marriage to my new sister."
After Stefan lit the table lamp he examined her expression, then laughed. "You sound like Greta. Both of you can find a glimmer of sunlight in the darkest shadow." He pressed Lucie's hand. "Tomorrow you must rest from your journey, then take a day or so to explore. There's so much to see."
"Right now I need to explore for our supper," she said, pushing up from the table. There was no meat in the salt box beside the scuttle, but considering the heat she hadn't really expected there would be. Nor was there much of anything else.
In the end Lucie relied on her mother's recipe for hard times and crumbled a hardening loaf of dark bread into two cracked bowls she found on the shelf. Though it added to the heat trapped in the room, she fed the stove until a pot bubbled then she poured the boiling water over the bread. After waiting a moment she poured off the excess water, added a generous amount of salt and pepper then stirred in a spoonful of the cooking grease she found in a crock on the back of the stove.
"Even when I'm rich," Stefan said with a wink, "I'll want Greta to prepare water-bread to remind me of home."
Lucie laughed and refrained from mentioning that no one in Wlad imagined people in America ate water-bread.
But she thought of it later when she was lying on her thin mattress in the tar-black second room, listening to an argument on the other side of the wall that sounded as if it were taking place at her elbow. She listened to the angry despairing voices, listened to the scrabble of miceshe hoped it was only micerunning up the walls, listened to Stefan's soft snore. A tear spilled from her eyes and dropped to the mattress.
She had not expected that she and Stefan would live in luxury or splendor. But neither had she expected squalor. As poor as they were, the villages in Wlad had fresh clean air and plentiful sunshine. And flowers on the sills. No one lived above an outhouse or piled garbage in his yard.
It was also true there was no hope for change in Wlad, no opportunity for a young man or woman to better themselves. Inheritance had carved the land into smaller and smaller plots and each year the soil seemed less fertile than the year before, the harvest less plentiful. People went to bed hungry in Wlad and shivered before empty grates when the snows came. And always there was the fear of the soldiers who might swoop through the village burning and pillaging for an evening's amusement.
Life would be better in America. But Lucie stared into the darkness and remembered the faces in Elizabeth Street. She knew those faces. Faces frozen by anxiety, faces holding fear inside. Hungry faces, ill faces, faces reflecting the uncertainty of tomorrow. Had they arrived in the land of plenty as filled with hope and excitement as she? What had happened between Ellis Island and Elizabeth Street?
Was America no more than a golden myth? No, she thought with a shudder of rejection. No soldiers would come in the night. No tax collector would appear in the morning. Her belly was full and she had two rooms to call her own. Stefan had work and so would she. They were young and strong and willing to wait for the opportunity mat would surely come, as it never would in Wlad.
Lying in the darkness, listening to the sounds of Stefan's snores and the noise within and beyond the walls, Lucie finally let herself remember the Irishman whose dark eyes had made her shiver in the sunlight. Where was he tonight? Would she ever see him again? It didn't seem possible that fate had brought them together only to cast them apart.
She recalled the exhilaration she had felt when she met Jamie Kelly, followed by the shock and disappointment of seeing where she and Stefan would live. Her first day in America had been strange and bewilderingand not at all what she had expected.
In the morning she fried the last of the bread for Stefan's breakfast and sent him downstairs to empty the slop bucket and join the line waiting to pump fresh water for coffee and washing.
Shortly after Stefan departed for work, a sliver of sunlight slipped across the window's broken pane and Lucie stared at the light, mesmerized, suspecting it would be the last sunshiny brightness she would see today.
Before Stefan returned, bringing bread, cheese and sausage for their supper, she had replaced the linen on the mattresses with the sheets she brought from home, had scrubbed the rooms from floor to ceilings, had polished the lamp chimneys and had restored a semblance of respectability to the stove.
The next day, marshaling her courage, she donned her hat and gloves and timidly ventured outside determined to explore her new world. The bewildering array of streets and cross streets and back alleyways overwhelmed her but she made herself swallow the fear that lodged in her throat. The trick was to proceed slowly, memorizing her steps, progressing a bit farther each day.
By the end of the week she discovered the Hester Street market and learned the best buys could be made late in the day when the stall owners and pushcart vendors prepared to close shop for the evening. She found the station for the elevated, though she didn't dare venture inside, and made herself stand and watch and listen to the hideous shriek of hot metal until she no longer felt like running from the noise and belching cinders. She located the corners where the red horse cars stopped and examined the wares offered by the pushcarts in every streetsecondhand clothing, secondhand food and scissors, eyeglasses and scraps of wood and old nails. Eventually she walked to Broadway and stood enchanted before huge glass panes that displayed items of such unimaginable luxury they took her breath away.
She discovered streets that had formed into small countries, Italians here, strange exotic Orientals there, Hebrews and Slavs and Greeks, each group claiming a section of the city for themselves. She found the dumps where the ragpickers worked and the wharves and the factories that fouled the air with soot and the sulfur smell of blast furnaces.
And always she watched for Mr. Kelly, hoping to turn the next corner and encounter him. When she did not, her disappointment was acute. As Lucie prided herself on possessing a practical nature not given to flights of fancy, her constant hope of meeting Mr. Kelly troubled her. She did not understand why she could not forget him. Or why she did not wish to.
Aware she acted foolishly and out of character, she nevertheless scanned the streets and walkway traffic, seeking a bright auburn head, a broad set of shoulders, teeth as white as bleached bone. Once she heard a man laugh and she stopped, feeling her cheeks heat with anticipation. But when she turned, it was not him and her shoulders dropped with disappointment.
She found no work, either. "Tomorrow I'll try the factories," she assured Stefan at the end of her second week in America. She considered their supper of cold potato pie and yesterday's bread and figured the cost in her mind.
"The factories have been sacking people," Stefan informed her. "Greta worries whether she'll have a job tomorrow."
Lucie still hadn't met Greta, which was a continuing disappointment, but already she admired the young woman's courage. Though ill, Greta rose each day and went to work. "Is she feeling any better?"
Stefan carried their supper plates to the tub of hot water on top of the stove. A worried frown drew his brow. "A little. She's so eager to meet you, worried what you must think that she hasn't greeted you. I hope by next week"
Lucie finished her glass of warm beer and mopped her neck. It was as hot tonight as it had been last night. Heat engulfed the city, squeezing the air from every breath, turning the streets into dry choking powder. The newspapers compared this summer to the heat wave of 1896, three years ago, and the numbers of people and animals who had died of heat-related illness.
It worried her that Stefan carried his mattress up to the tenement rooftop to sleep, hoping for a breath of cooler air. At least once a week the newspapers reported the death of someone who had fallen from a rooftop.
Lucie sighed. It was imperative that she find work soon. Stefan had shown her the hiding place under the loose board in the second room where he kept his money. The small cache was steadily dwindling. Standing, thinking about it, she smoothed her hands over her apron then washed the supper dishes, saving the water for the morning.
"Tomorrow I'll bring your noonday meal to the work site," she said before Stefan departed to carry his mattress up to the roof. When he protested she turned to face him. "Please, Stefan. I need to feel useful. It will give me something to do until I find work."
After he left, she sat in the hot thick darkness wearing only her petticoat and shift, holding their remaining coins in her hand. Slowly, she counted them again, hoping she had erred.
Long after the night rustlings died in the street, Lucie continued to sit in the darkness beside the window, looking at the sagging shutters on the tenement facing her. Right now her goal of earning Stefan's marriage money seemed as far away as the handsome Irishman who continued to haunt her dreams.
A bittersweet ache settled in Lucie's small bosom. She wondered if Jamie Kelly had found a job, wondered if he remembered their brief meeting at Ellis Island, wondered if he thought about her as frequently as she found herself thinking about him.
Jamie Kelly stood back from the noise and dust billowing from the street, hands thrust in his pockets, watching a mounted policeman attempt to unravel one of the ubiquitous traffic snarls that hourly paralyzed Broadway. The unrelenting heat frayed tempers and nerves, and the scene in front of him was punctuated by an eruption of shouts and curses and accusations.
Ordinarily the tangled wheels and harness would have provided an interesting diversion, but at the moment all he could think about was the tantalizing fragrance of roast pork and fried potatoes that wafted from the doorway beside him.
Counting his money by feeling the shape of the coins in his pocket, Jamie arrived at the same total he had a moment before. Sixty-two cents. The pork and potatoes, plus a slice of pie, the thought of which made his mouth water, cost twenty-five cents. He hadn't eaten since yesterday and he was tempted to step inside the hash house, out of the burning sun, and relieve the tightness cramping his stomach.
Exerting a will of their own, his fingers separated two dimes and a nickel from among his coins and curled around them. The saliva that dampened his mouth at the thought of the pie dried in the curls of dust rising from the street and he thought how good a cool pint would taste, like a wee bit of heaven.
The cost of a meal and a pint would leave him thirty-seven cents. Subtract ten cents for a bed at a lodging house, and he would start tomorrow with twenty-seven cents. If he settled for a doss house in the Bowery, he could save five cents. Even for a man brimming with optimism that cut the future too thin.
Turning aside from the hash house doorway, Jamie made himself walk away from the scents and thoughts of food. As the crush of pedestrian traffic was as thick and bad-tempered as the street traffic, he stayed near the buildings, which was better anyway as he could watch for Help Wanted signs in the windows.