In the midst of the sortie that morning, day two of the labor situation over at the Standard works, King Touey had managed to get separated from his own and was now in serious jeopardy. Howling in half a dozen languages, none of them English, angry strikers had knocked him down on a track spur of the Jersey Central, beside an isolated caboose. Someone grabbed his rifle, then they’d all landed kicks to the side of his head and cauliflowered his fucking ear! While he’d rolled and scrambled under the caboose, then jumped to his feet on the other side and taken off running, he hadn’t looked where he was going, in which direction, and blundered into a swamp at the end of East Twenty-Second Street. Now he was sliding on a steep decline of coarse, nicking cinders, unwilling, his arms flailing. He splashed to his calves into a ditch used for drawing off waste oil. He felt like he was standing in mucilage.
King’s pursuers had collected, panting, around the near rim of the ditch. Some were bending for stones. And one of them—holy shit!—was pointing a long-barreled revolver. Desperate, King whipped around and charged forward and tore his fingers scrabbling up a fifty-foot-high careless dump of cinders on the opposite side of the ditch. Far short of the top he started to dig his way in. As he did, the slag hill shifted and adjusted, burying him in an airless tunnel. He didn’t move. Several shots—thip, thip, thip, thip—poured into the cinders. Then they stopped. But wait. Listen. Just wait. But he couldn’t, he couldn’t stay buried alive! King’s brain was screaming, and it screamed louder when he tried to squirm again and gritty powder and cinders gushed into his face, into his mouth. Panicky, our man pushed himself—pushed up!—and his head crunched through into daylight. He gasped, momentarily blinded. But when he could see again, he saw that all of his pursuers, figuring that he’d suffocated or else been shot, had ambled off and rejoined the melee still raging in front of the Standard’s concrete stockade.
It had not been the smartest tactical move, probably, for a dozen hired sluggers to come racing out of the works by the J Street exit and attack a few hundred striking oil workers. Frankly, they hadn’t given the plan, really no plan, very much thought. All of the standing and sitting around, the muggy summer heat—they’d have done anything, just to do something, no matter how foolish. King certainly felt that way. He’d been catching flies and squeezing them to death in his fist with wild fury, so when the plant’s general manager started complaining about congestion in the street, King gathered a posse and out they’d sallied. But the strikers held their ground. They had bats and bricks and pipe and wouldn’t be moved. They’d chased half of King’s men back into the plant, then torched a watchman’s gate; the rest of the sluggers had fled to a nearby firehouse—Engine Company 4—and barricaded themselves inside.
Now, as King stood awkwardly balanced atop the hill of cinders in the mid-morning heat and white haze, the Standard’s front gates swung open and the company’s own special policemen, armed with pistols and repeating rifles, surged out. And it looked like the Bayonne cops, who so far today had loitered around the breastworks talking and laughing like well-acquainted men in front of a tavern, had joined the fray. Shots began snapping everywhere. Brushing soot from his shirt sleeves, King glanced back to the stockade wall and realized he was a sitting duck for one of his own fellers inside the plant, anybody could mistake him for an idling striker. Fuck this shit. As he slant walked down the cinders, dangerously picking up speed, a loud concussive blast erupted in the paraffin yard. That was immediately followed by several high rolling boils of greasy black smoke. On flat ground again, King was uncertain what to do. He was alone, unarmed, completely exposed. He could risk shoving and punching his way back to the plant, or he could—
From off to his left, close by, came a single, sharply demanding cat’s mew. The cat was a torn-eared, large ash gray tom. It stared, not blinking, at King Touey, then bounded away, over a jumbled aggregation of tarry railroad ties. But just as he’d moved, a shiny, bright-red disk on coarse twine around his neck flicked briefly into view. My God! King laughed in puzzled surprise. What the hell was Our Patsy’s cat doing way over here? What the hell, King thought. And with that, with that sign—because what else would he call it?—King Touey decided he’d scram for a while and come back here later, after things quieted down. He was an impulsive man, but he trusted his impulses, so it was generally all right. Not always but generally. More often than not.
“Hey you, wait up!” he called, footing it toward the Kull Road, following after the Cat of Ashes, who was prowling south, angling west.
Back behind them both, an ambulance siren wailed.
Aunt Dotty was reading aloud from today’s newspaper, which she held rattlingly open in front of her face and which had a long narrow rectangle cut out of the front page. You could see her mouth through it, and one green eye. “‘Samuel Harris, policeman, hit by stone’…‘John Langtree, policeman, hit by stone’…‘Alfred Clark, policeman, hit by stone’…‘Hugh McGeehan, policeman, cut by a thrown bottle.’ Those poor policemen!” she said, then resumed: ‘‘‘Michael Graglia, laborer, shot in the arm. Martin Kar…et…ski, Karetski, laborer, shot in the arm, leg broken.’ What a mess!”
“Karetsi,” said Helen Ince, Olive’s mother, from the other upholstered chair in the parlor, and with a supplementary disapproving frown. “Graglia.” Helen frowned more deeply. “Sister, would you mind not reading out loud? Would that be too much to ask? Under the circumstances?”
“Of course not.” Chastened, Aunt Dotty closed and folded the newspaper and laid it aside, balancing it on the broad arm of her chair next to a pair of sewing shears and the long cutting from the front page. SPURNED SUITOR SHOOTS 2, TOT DIES. “I’m so sorry, Helen, I wasn’t thinking.” Across the parlor on a table was a closed little casket adorned with white roses, rosary beads, and crucifix.
“Yes, well, time you started.”
“Should we go check on Mary Margaret, do you think?”
“She’s sleeping, let her be.”
“Of course.” Aunt Dotty picked up the news clipping but then laid it back down again, immediately. It was terrible, the story, and ghastly, but it was also uncanny that her nieces’ and her grandnephew’s names and addresses were actually printed in the Bayonne Times; this was the first time in Dottie Driscoll’s life—and she was 43, although it’s none of your business—that anyone in her family had been written about in the newspaper, except, of course, for brief obituaries. “I thought some people might’ve come around by now to pay their respects. Didn’t you?”
“It’s still early.” And it was, it was hardly past noon. “Besides,” said Helen, “the poor thing was only two months old.”
“Well, it’s not for little Tim so much as for Mary Margaret and Neil.”
“Neil! I’d like to pay that weasel my respects, tell you what—right in the mouth! Oh, the weeping and the wailing and the gnashing of teeth—did you see where the big lummox put his fist through the kitchen wall? Mad with grief, he was! Irish as they get! And where’s he been for the past twelve hours? That weasel!”
Aunt Dotty shook her head, unable to say where he’d gone to after he’d lit out of there. But same as Helen, she felt sure, and Mary Margaret, she had her suspicions. Like as not, Neil Cudhy had been comforted in his grief these past twelve hours by his Not-So-Secret Lady Friend from St. Andrew’s parish. It was Peggy Donahue with her floppy great bosoms who bore chief responsibility for this disaster, when you came right down to it. When you looked at events clearly, like a judge, Peggy Donahue was the one they ought to put away. If Neil had never started keeping company with that fat slattern, Mary Margaret would not have felt impelled to take her infant son and go seek advice and consolation from her younger sister Olive, and if Mary Margaret had not been pouring out her heart at Olive’s flat yesterday morning when that mad barber from Jersey City showed up with a loaded pistol—well. None of this, none of it, would have happened.
“What?” said Dotty.
“Olive.” Helen stood at the open front window, spreading both gritty curtain panels with the backs of her hands. She nodded toward the street. “The prodigal daughter is coming.” She let the curtains drop and crossed the parlor. “Excuse me, Dot.” With a flat, unblinking glance at the tiny casket, she went out and stood on the landing and watched Olive trudge up three long flights of tenement stairs, her left arm in a black silk sling.
“I thought you’d be here sooner.”
“I said noon, Ma. What time is it now?”
“I just thought you’d come sooner, that’s all. How long do you have to wear that awful get up?”
“As long as Dr. Gleason says to.” Olive slightly raised her elbow from the sling. “It keeps the weight off my shoulder. So it doesn’t get pulled down.”
“I understand the theory, Olive, I’m not a moron.”
“You made it sound like I have a cast on my arm, or something.”
“Don’t exaggerate, I didn’t make it sound like that at all.” She picked a piece of lint off the sleeve of her black dress. “I merely asked you a question.”
“Well, I don’t know how long, to answer it. And at least it’s my left arm.”
By this time they’d gone back into Mary Margaret’s flat and closed the door.
“The bullet didn’t hit any bone, it went straight through.”
“You’ve already told me. Your sister’s asleep, your aunt Dotty is driving me crazy with her strike obsession, it’s just an obsession with that one. And still no sign of your brother-in-law.”
“Of course not,” said Olive. Coming into the parlor, she gave Aunt Dotty a big kiss, but no hug—she was careful with her shoulder; the wound, still heavily packed with gauze, had reopened and bled several times already since being treated yesterday at Bayonne City Hospital.
“How are you feeling, sweetheart?” said Aunt Dotty. “Does it still hurt?”
“Not too much, they gave me some tablets.” Olive glanced critically at her mother. At least somebody in this room cared that she’d been shot! When she noticed Tim’s casket on the bridge table, Olive felt lightheaded all of a sudden and excused herself to go get a glass of water in the kitchen. Her mother followed her there, so instead of reaching down a drinking glass, Olive turned right around and said, “You think this is all my fault, don’t you?”
“Have I said that, have you heard me say any such thing?”
“I just know you do.”
“Well, then you must have a guilty conscience, Olive. Do you?”
Olive thrummed with exasperation. “I don’t even know this man, Mother, I saw him exactly two times in my life, three if you count yesterday, and before you can even say it, I did not ‘lead’ him on.”
Helen flapped one hand, and seeing the dismissive gesture, Olive almost laughed. Down to the final half turn of the wrist and the way that Helen crossed her pinky, in sort of an X, over the fourth finger, it was a gesture Olive used herself a dozen times a day. While the two of them always were in dispute about something—a decision, a dress, an attitude, a slang habit, and the list went on—they were, in truth, fundamentally alike, far more alike than not. Neither suffered fools gladly or was ever likely to change an opinion once it was formed, often instantly. They carried themselves alike, and walked alike—pigeon-toed, with a charming sway—and their voices had the same timbre, similar inflections. They even looked alike: blonde hair, blue eyes, perfect features, although Helen’s prettiness, as fulsome and famous around Bayonne when she was a young woman as her 19-year-old daughter’s was at the moment, had naturally faded with time—and if you must know, she was 46. But Helen had retained her trig figure, even now only slightly fuller, and only in the bust, than Olive’s.
They could scarcely tolerate each other. Although Helen had been stony and ungracious when Mary Margaret married the loutish Neil Cudhy, she could, and did, remain on good terms with her older daughter. But she would never forgive her younger daughter for moving out. An unmarried girl. It wasn’t right. And besides, without Olive’s financial contribution to the household upkeep, Helen currently found herself living in uncomfortably reduced circumstances. It was unseemly. And it was unnecessary, pinching pennies and living with her unmarried sister, putting off repairs, because she couldn’t afford to pay for them, until they became major problems. What was the matter with Olive? Oh, she knew, Helen knew all right, but would never say.
“When I saw Charlie Gillick yesterday,” said Olive, “he told me to tell you hello.” No, he hadn’t, but she wanted to add a little something to her mother’s gesture, her contribution to the changing of the subject.
“I thought he’d amount to more. Well, Charlie’s still young, perhaps he will.”
“He’s a policeman! What’s wrong with that?” Then, “Oh God,” she groaned, because her mother had made that damn flapping gesture again. “I don’t even know why I talk to you. I’m going to go see Mary Margaret.”
“Let her be, don’t wake the poor girl! And I was only saying that Charlie’s two brothers are lawyers and his father’s our City Attorney. By comparison, is all I’m saying, a policeman seems a lot less, I don’t know, impressive. But I always liked Charlie. He’s a nice boy.”
Olive stood there shaking her head.
“Everything all right?” It was Aunt Dotty, looking worried, in the kitchen doorway.
“Everything’s great,” said Olive. “Mom thinks the whole world should be lawyers.”
“Oh you’re impossible, you just twist my words.” Helen set her face, hardened it, and glared. Even glaring, she was still an unusually pretty woman.
“I taught him when he was little.” Aunt Dotty gave piano lessons, and it was one of the burning irritants in Helen’s life that Dotty now gave them in Helen’s house, that she’d been forced to turn her front parlor into a school of music. That her sister had moved in with Helen last March, just so both could make ends meet, was too unfair, too cruel, the cherry on the cake.
“No, Dot, you’re thinking of Johnny Gillick,” said Helen. “Charlie’s older brother.”
“The dashing lawyer,” said Olive, finally running the cold water and filling a glass. “One of two. Three if you count the old man. Our City Attorney.” After she drank and set the glass down, Olive looked at her mother again, eyes narrowing in concentration, deciding whether to drop all this right now or say what just popped into her head, something meant to criticize, disparage, and annoy. Oh why not? “Mom thinks it’s not so wonderful, Charlie Gillick being a cop. But King Touey! He’s a bum and a criminal, but you’d never convince her of that—he walks on water!”
“Olive! How dare you!”
“Don’t put me in the middle of this,” said Aunt Dotty. She left the doorway quickly and retreated to the parlor, but Olive heard her bah-muttering King Touey’s name as she walked off. She knew. Aunt Dotty knew what a homicidal thug King Touey really was, everybody did, it was just Olive’s delusional (and terrible to suspect, but possibly lovesick) mother who insisted on believing that King Touey was still the same ruggedly handsome, hard-rock young man (“He looks like Jack London!” Helen had declared, many times) that he’d been years ago. As a boy in his middle and late teens, King had lived in the house next door to the Inces. This was when Olive was a young girl and after Mr. Ince had left one Monday morning on his weekly sales route and never returned. Olive and her mother lived at 810 Boulevard and King Touey lived with his widowed sister and their mentally retarded brother at 812, and stripped to the waist and sweating, he practiced his boxing in their mutual backyard. For long periods of time, Helen would stand watching him for the kitchen window.
“I don’t care what people say, Olive.” She was assuming her icy, imperious mien. “What people think is immaterial to me.” Whenever she assumed this vaunted manner, she was apt to use words like “immaterial.” “I make up my own mind. Some men are naturally soldiers of fortune. King Touey has chosen that life. Who am I to sit in judgment?”
Olive was struck dumb. This was too much. Yes, of course, she’d meant to get an indignant reaction from her mother, but this was too much. Soldier of fortune! The man had practically raped Olive when she was 17. “I’m going to go wake up Mary Margaret because I want to see my sister, and then I have to go to work.”
“You’re planning to work today? When your nephew is lying in a casket in the next room?”
“Excuse me,” said Olive passing in front of her mother to leave the kitchen. Suddenly, Helen’s hand flashed out and clamped Olive’s left arm at the elbow, black silk bunching in her fist. Ever so slightly, she tugged down. Olive winced.
“I’m still your mother, watch your mouth.” After significant seconds, she let go of her hold.
They looked at each, dead-eyed each other, till Olive turned away, groaning surrender, and went out of the kitchen and up the short hall and tapped, agitatedly, almost irritably, on Mary Margaret’s bedroom door.
He’d followed the Kull Road across marshy flats, baking in the heat, squashing mosquitoes and being eyeballed suspiciously by company guards whenever he passed a small nickel or borax or chemical factory, staying close and less-close and sometimes distantly behind the large gray tom. Once in a while King Touey lost sight of him but then, as if out of thin air, the animal was right there again, practically underfoot.
When the Kull Road ended, the Cat of Ashes (“Cassius, Cassius, Cat of Ashes,” Our Patsy’s moronic singsong had become stuck in King’s brain) followed Oak Street east, Oak bending south to Orient, then Orient to East Fifth Street, then East Fifth Street across to Lord Avenue. So far as King could determine, the route made no fucking sense; the cat—he was at least 12, and might well be senile, and he definitely moved with an arthritic hitch—seemed just to be prowling, wandering aimlessly. Lizzie’s house, where the cat lived with King’s sister and their brother Patsy, Our Patsy, was on the Hudson County Boulevard, up in the teen streets, in a whole other direction. So be it. King had no plans. He could follow a cat, it might prove interesting; he’d live a cat’s life for a short time, follow a cat’s itinerary.
But his damaged ear still smarted, and the pads of his fingers were all torn up, and his feet, his toes and his feet, and his legs all the way up to his knees, thanks to that flailing slog through the waste ditch outside the Standard, were maddeningly sore and sludgy inside of his oil-saturated trousers and boots. With each step his feet slurped in his socks. Fuck this shit. Whenever King stopped to light another cigarette, he was careful to shake out the match and toss it away, afraid that if he dropped it straight down, still burning, he might go up in flames.
The cat had loped ahead the length of the block, but now he stopped and sat placidly on the near corner, appearing to wait for King to catch up at his slow, dragging shuffle. King had to get out of these motherfucking shoes and socks, and he needed to find another pair of pants, too. The cat started licking a paw and wiping it with aggressive vigor across his gimpy ear, pressing the ear flatter against his skull, and as he did so, the red disk swished from his ruff, catching the sun.
From where he came to a halt, ten feet away from the still-grooming cat, King Touey could almost, but not quite, read the words carefully painted in black enamel on the face of the disk. He already knew what they said, though, because he’d painted them on there himself, three years ago. Four. Coming up on four years ago. Autumn, 1911. When Our Patsy had had that near-fatal bout of double-pneumonia, then pleurisy, almost drowned in his own phlegm, the poor little moron. King attended him around the clock—King and the Cat of Ashes. Lizzie used to say, maybe still did, but probably not, that it was King’s “sole and only” redeeming quality, that deep fraternal love he demonstrated—well, concern, deep fraternal concern—for his slow and childish older brother. King and the housecat—and it was a housecat in those days, not a rover—had remained at Patsy’s bedside through one crisis after another.
By a miracle (Dr. Gleason couldn’t believe his stethoscope), Patsy had recovered (just as two years previously, he’d recovered, though just barely, from bacterial meningitis; the year before that, it was German measles; before that, scarlet fever), and one day early in his recuperation, he’d asked King to do him a very special favor. Of course, said King, and listened to what Patsy wanted, but didn’t understand. Why this favor? Why now? Why at all? And what did it mean? Our Patsy only smiled, as he mostly only did. But all right, sure. King could do it. He didn’t mind—would the cat?
The disk itself was actually the round lid from an analgesics tin hammered flat and with a hole punched through it. The enamel paint came from Lizzie’s cellar. Black letters on a red background. Patsy told King what to print:
I AM THE CAT OF ASHES. IF YOU CAN TALK IN ENGLISH I CAN UNDERSTAND
“He can?” King Touey had asked his idiot brother, but Our Patsy only smiled, as he mostly only did.
And the Cat of Ashes? He’d let King knot the twine and hang the disk around his neck, no problem—sat calmly in Patsy’s lap and didn’t try to paw it off.
“So, you old gray piece of shit,” said King Touey now as he sat down on a low concrete wall and regarded the tom, “since you can understand English, where can I find some dry pants and a new pair of shoes?”
The cat blinked.
“I thought as much.” King fetched out another machine-made, lit it, shook out and tossed the match, then looked around the neighborhood of small, well-tended houses. While he was enjoying his smoke, the cat uttered that single, insistent mewing sound again and leapt onto the concrete wall next to King. The cat’s eyes were rheumy with yellow clots gelid in the corners. “Pretty fleet for an old pathetic fucker, aren’t you, Cassius?” said King, and the cat walked over and bumped the crown of his head against King’s right hand, the one holding the cigarette. King shoved him away. Christ, the cat was filthy, his scalp was all full of grit—didn’t Our Patsy brush him anymore? Didn’t Lizzie ever bring him to see a vet?
Maybe, thought King, the Cat of Ashes had got lost, was still lost, which explained why he’d turned up over by the Standard works.
That suggested an interesting course of action. King could take him home. Be a hero the first time he saw Liz again. She’d been plenty mad at him the last time he was back, two years ago. Well, he’d been plenty mad at Lizzie himself. She’d never believed it wasn’t King who’d orchestrated and pulled all of the so-called “black-hood stickups” at political clubs around town, and at Polish and Ukrainian fraternal societies; King had sworn an oath on their mother’s memory but still Lizzie hadn’t believed him. She couldn’t ever trust him again, he’d lied to her once too often. He’d felt like slapping her face but she was his sister, and King allowed, respected, a few constraints on his impulses, constraints that he never questioned. She was so convinced—thanks to that chinless shitbird Charlie Gillick, Charlie was the one who’d convinced her—that King was ringleader of that gang, but the police never came and arrested him, did they? Did they? So who should apologize?
Even so, it might be advantageous to bring home a beloved lost cat, the first time he saw Lizzie again.
Then something else occurred to King, an entirely different thought. What if the Cat of Ashes looked so unkempt and uncared for and was drifting all around the city because something bad had happened at home. To Patsy. Another fucking illness. That guy was the champ when it came to life-threatening diseases.
King turned to the cat—should he try to pick him up and carry him all the way over to the Boulevard and uptown? That didn’t sound too feasible—but the cat was trotting away up the puny front lawn behind them with his left hind leg crutching slightly. “Hey!” King hollered, “don’t go there!” Naturally, the cat paid no attention and glided down a narrow shaded alleyway between two identical houses. The alley opened into grassy backyards where King noticed laundry drying on double-clotheslines. Looking more carefully, he spotted several pairs of dungarees hanging on one of the lines, swaying gently. Without hesitation, King stood up and followed the cat down the alley, striding past coal bin windows and into the common yard that stretched behind half a dozen boxy houses. Once there, he grabbed the trouser legs on a pair of board-stiff dungarees that looked to be his size, then plucked off the clothespins and dashed off with the Cat of Ashes, for a change, in hot pursuit.
Although he knew he wasn’t being chased, King didn’t stop running till he came to First Street on the Kill Von Kull. A few red tugs and a yellow ferry were the only activity at the moment out on the dark-blue riffled water. He stopped to catch his breath and to hold the dungarees up in front of him. These would definitely fit. When he resumed walking, the cat darted around him from behind and took point again.
Coming up ahead now on King’s left was the once-grand but now badly gone-to-seed LaTourette Hotel, its many white buildings–hotel, pavilions, gazebos–in disrepair, its scrubby grounds bordered by hedges eight feet tall. But the hedges weren’t being trimmed with any regularity, some of them were dead, and there were many bare spots. At one of those, and without missing a beat, King simply stepped off the sidewalk and disappeared.
He sat down on the ground in a hollowed out but still branchy part of a hedge. The ground was cushioned by undulant mounds of brown needles. With grunts of relief, King pulled off his boots and socks. He unbuckled and unbuttoned his trousers and tore them off. His legs and feet, usually white as milk, were coated with brown waste oil. Before he pulled on the dungarees, he removed both his cash and his belt from his trousers and then used the trousers, at least the dry upper part of them, to wipe off his legs and feet as best he could. Fuck this shit, fuck it royally.
He drew on and buttoned up the dungarees, then sat on the bed of needles savoring the new comfort he felt. He regarded his feet, wiggled his toes. There was no way he was putting those shitty boots and socks back on, that was never going to happen. So what was he supposed to do? Walk around the city barefoot? Looked like it. He left his trousers and his socks under the hedge, but grabbing both uppers in one hand, he took his boots with him as he crawled out of concealment and stood up again on the pavement. He could clean them, maybe. Wear them again. Two working men in caps sauntered past just as King appeared from the hedge, and they looked at him, and at the oil-saturated boots in his hands, but said nothing. King hadn’t noticed him leave, but the Cat of Ashes must’ve taken off. Well, he’d disappeared before, he’d turn up again.
The pavement was so hot that King had to step off it regularly and onto edging strips of grass; still, he was going to get blisters on the soles of his feet. At the crackle of electricity and a clanging bell, King glanced to the street as a green trolley car jammed to the running boards went rocking past. A man in a straw boater stepped out of the public facilities still buttoning his fly. King considered using the facilities himself, but decided he didn’t need to. He drifted by a Chinese restaurant, an oyster and chop house, and a lemonade cart with its sleepy attendant leaning on one of the wooden wheels, idly clicking the keys on the change-making machine clipped to his belt. Where was the cat? Nowhere to be seen.
At the foot of Avenue C, King recognized a couple of Bergoff’s crack shadow men hanging around the ferry house—one of them putting a penny in the Indian nut machine, his partner sitting for a shoeshine. They were on the lookout for debarking labor agitators, of course. For a second King thought he might drift over there and say hello, but he was carrying those fucking boots in his hand, and he was barefoot, and, as it was, most high-degree nobles in the Bergoff organization already considered scab-herders like King Touey to be no better than common trash, not in their league. Fuck them. Fuck their mothers too. Averting his face, King hoped those shitbird nobles didn’t recognize him. Two mules hitched in tandem to a bread wagon went clopping by just then, and the bread man, holding the reins in one hand, gave King a friendly salute with the other. King showed him his middle finger.
A few minutes later, just beyond the glazed-brick City Pleasure Palace, where as a boxer of 19 he’d fought his first 3-round bouts, King Touey paused at an overgrown vacant lot to watch a red-hulled cargo freighter swing around the foot of the Bayonne peninsula, steaming into the kill from Newark Bay. If he hadn’t stopped there and looked toward the water, he probably never would have spotted the Cat of Ashes standing perched on what seemed like a small mound of litter midway across the scrubby lot. King veered from the pavement, but then stopped, afraid if he came too close, or approached too quickly, the tom would bolt. The ground here was stony below the sharp-edged sere and crab grasses. Probably there was broken glass that he couldn’t see. King said, “Come on, Cassius, you little motherfucker, let’s go.” He beckoned with a hand, then snapped his fingers.
The cat yowled, once, sharply. But didn’t budge from the raised mound he stood upon.
Not sure what he’d do if he reached the cat and the cat didn’t run off, King took a number of steps closer until he suddenly flinched and, with a loud oath, drew back. The Cat of Ashes wasn’t standing on a hummocky pile of garbage, but on the hip of a dead men lying curled on his side and partly, mostly, concealed by tall weeds. Or maybe he wasn’t dead.
No, he was dead. An emaciated man in his late fifties with gray wispy hair thin at the crown, and his head resting on puffed and faded old newspapers. Poor alky bastard—two empty pint-bottles with bourbon labels were lying nearby—must have laid down on a pillow of newspapers and died in his sleep. Died in his shabby jacket and grimy shirt and stained brown trousers. Also in a pair of what appeared to be decent lace-up black walking shoes—badly scuffed, naturally, but the soles were decent and the heels not worn.
While King Touey squatted and pulled off the dead man’s shoes, the Cat of Ashes leapt from the corpse and trotted around beside him, sat down and began to scratch behind his good ear.
The red disk swung.
Liz Landrigan knew that sexual pleasure outside of marriage was a mortal sin, and that fellatio was more reprehensible than intercourse, but she could deal with all of that, she could live with it. She was an alert, educated, well-read woman, she went into things knowing what she was doing. Giving Johnny Gillick oral relief while on her knees beside his desk did not bother her conscience. No, the problem was confession. Now, because of the hasty act she’d performed this morning, she had to go to confession! Liz hated confession more than anything, especially now that old Father Dunn had retired with progressive dementia and she was forced to go to Father Sweeney, which was excruciating and humiliating. If you confessed “impure deeds” to Father Dunn and the number of times wasn’t excessive, he’d give you a penance of three Our Fathers, Six Hail Marys, and then tell you to make to make a good Act of Contrition, but young Father Sweeney! He made you squirm, made you feel sick and disgusted with yourself. Liz didn’t know if she could go through that again.
Oh God, her last confession! What kind of impure acts, he’d wanted to know—and had she committed fornication or adultery? Was the man married? Was he Catholic? What had they done? Had they performed any lewd and perverted acts? Swaying there on the padded kneeler in the shadowy confessional, holding her head back as far from the grillwork as she possibly could, Liz thought she might faint, she was so embarrassed. Could a priest legitimately ask those kinds of questions? Liz couldn’t imagine that sort of interrogation being condoned by the Catholic Church, but how she could know for sure? It wasn’t a thing you asked someone. Who would you ask? She considered traipsing down to St. Andrew’s for confession, but didn’t know any of the priests there and what if she landed someone worse? But who could be worse than Father Sweeney?
No, thought Liz Landrigan as she walked along the shaded Boulevard, nodding absently to passersby, going home that one o’clock hour to check on her brother Patsy and to make them both lunch, no—with a firm snap to the mentally enunciated word: no. This was the last time. That had been the last time. She’d return to the office after lunch and tell Johnny Gillick this had to stop. Right now. He was married, he had a family, small children, it was sordid, and she couldn’t bear to have to confess that she’d performed a fellatio again, in Johnny’s safely locked office at Gillick, Gillick & Gillick, where Liz worked as a skilled secretarial employee. No, she’d tell Johnny, we have to stop. Besides, she didn’t love the man, who could be an awful blowhard and was a bit of a tubby, and she knew that he’d only tried his luck with her because she was a widow of 35 and because of the common belief (apparently true in Liz’s case) that widows in middle age were easy because they’d been used to getting it.
If she was going to love any Gillick, it wouldn’t be Johnny, it would be his sweet and funny kid brother Charlie, who’d had a crush on Liz since he was ten. Problem with Charlie Gillick, he was only a year out of high school. Oh dear God, if Charlie Gillick ever were to find out about Johnny and her, Liz would be completely, unbearably ashamed; she’d be mortified.
No more of this, then. Today was the last time and she would tell Johnny that right after lunch. The very last time. Done! And the truth was, she wouldn’t even miss it; he nearly choked her every time with that vulgar, uncircumcised big thing—much bigger and scarcely as beautiful as her late husband’s; it wasn’t much fun for her. But would Johnny retaliate if she broke it off suddenly? No. For all of his faults, he was a gentleman. And he needed Liz. She virtually ran the office, the practice would be a shambles without her. So that was that. She’d end it today, immediately when she came back after lunch.
Having resolved so, Liz felt most of the guilt radiate from her high narrow shoulders (she was very tall, nearly six foot tall, spindly and bustless, a very handsome woman), but then she groaned, vexed to see Miss Cubberly, from the Society for Unfortunates, standing on her front porch.
“Miss Landrigan, good afternoon.”
“It’s missus,” said Liz, fully annoyed now. How many times had they had this same exchange? The woman was a ninny. Dowdy in her late twenties, even prematurely gray. A ninny and a real buttinski.
“I’ll get it right one of these days, Mrs. Landrigan, please pardon me,” said Miss Cubberly, then stepped aside so Liz could stand at the front door and fish her house key from a side pocket of the small leather satchel she always carried.
“I wasn’t aware,” said Liz, “that we had an appointment scheduled for today. I’m afraid it’s not a good time.” Her mistake was stepping into the house and not blocking the door, because Miss Cubberly followed her directly inside, saying, “Well, not a scheduled appointment, per se, but I wanted to invite you and Pat on an excursion boat ride to the amusement park at Rye, New York, a week from this Saturday.”
“That’s kind of you,” said Liz, taking off her hat and setting it down on the glass-topped round side table in the parlor. Then she went and stood at the foot of the stairs and called up, “Pats! I’m home!” Turning back to Miss Cubberly, Liz said, “Very kind, but we have other plans.” It was the polite lie.
Liz had once made the mistake, back in May, of going with Our Patsy on an outing arranged by Miss Cubberly and her like-minded do-gooders at the Society. The menagerie, they’d gone to the menagerie in New York City. Taken public transportation, it was a nightmare! Nearly all of the unfortunates had been Mongoloid children—Patsy seemed embarrassed in their company, and Liz was made deeply sad. They also unsettled her; she was sure it wasn’t so, and that parents could tell them apart, but the children all looked the same to her. That was troubling, and she was ashamed to admit to herself that it felt like stepping into a dark fairy tale. And then, to top it off, a monkey in a cage hurled a banana through the bars that struck Liz in the forehead, knocking off a good spring hat, a new hat, and making her appear ridiculous to all of the unfortunates and their minders. She felt she’d blushed red as a beet. And then, never one to brook a violation of her self-respect (her mother used to tell her she was just “horribly vain” and that the vanity came from her father), Liz picked up the banana and flung it—nothing feminine about how Liz flung that banana, either—right back at the monkey. Unfortunately it struck one of the cage bars and burst fruit sprayed all over the monkey house. No more trips with Miss Cubberly and her cronies, thank you very much.
“It’s a Hibernians’ event. There’s no cost for the unfortunates or for any family members who may wish to come along.”
“I told you, Miss Cubberly, we’re engaged. Excuse me.” She called up the stairs again, “Pats?” Liz held up a hand, signaling Miss Cubberly to be silent, and they both waited.
At last a door opened on the third floor and a loud but groggy-sounding voice came funneling down the stairs and around the landings: “Hi. Ya. Liz!”
Liz noticed Miss Cubberly’s small anemic mouth bend into a pity smile and felt loathing for the woman. “I don’t wish to be rude, but I have only half an hour to get Our Patsy fed and have a little something to eat myself.”
“Oh, I’ll be running along, but I wonder if I could stay just long enough to say hello to Patrick when he comes down.”
“I’m sorry, but he’ll be a while, Patsy doesn’t usually come till his food is already on the table.” To emphasize that she wanted Miss Cubberly to leave immediately, Liz had bent her face close to the woman’s when she spoke—and immediately was horrified that her breath might still carry the telltale scent of ejaculate, although it seemed unlikely that Miss Cubberly would be familiar with it. Still, Liz’s breath was not sweetened, that was for certain. She “walked” Miss Cubberly out to the front porch; the welfare society agent followed, but reluctantly.
At the very same instant both women, uttering “ohs,” noticed black smoke drifting over the Hudson County Boulevard, almost skimming the rooftops, moving east to west. “Heavenly Father,” said Miss Cubberly putting a hand to her mouth. Then she pinched her nostrils at the first whiff of an evil petroleum smell. “I hope the Standard’s not burning,” she added, her natural high-pitched voiced rendered nasal and ludicrous.
“Thank you so much for the invitation,” said Liz.
Miss Cubberly dropped her hand. “I heard just before I came by, Bill at Brockman’s Pharmacy was saying a Polack boy was shot in the face over at the works about an hour ago. He’s probably dead. That’s according to Bill.”
Liz nodded, pursing her lips, and shut the door on Miss Cubberly.
“Pats!” she called passing by the foot of the stairs on her way to the kitchen. “Come on down—right now!—but first wash your hands!” She’d have to call him three or four more times before he’d appear. It was a ritual, three times daily.
In the kitchen Liz ran water at the sink and filled the kettle and a sauce pan and set them both on the stove, lighting two burners with a wooden stick match. The drizzle of smoke caught her attention, and she watched it, rapt, till it all dissipated. She took out the butter and a couple of eggs from the ice box, and the remains of a baked ham brushed with gooey brown sugar. Put out two cups in saucers, got the cutlery and the tea canister, and sliced bread for her sandwich and Patsy’s toast. She opened the door to the back stairs and yelled up, “Patsy! Come keep me company, come on, Pats.” She realized she hadn’t thought about Johnny Gillick, about what had happened, about what would happen later, in at least five minutes, but now she was thinking about him again. But at least it reminded her to chew a Sen-sen, which she did.
“Patsy Touey!” Liz called up the back stairs; called up and then went up, two steps. “Lunch! Right this minute!” Stepping back down into the kitchen, she nearly tripped over the Cat of Ashes. He avoided her foot at the last moment and climbed, with his left hind leg dragging, all the way up to Patsy’s landing. The kitchen cat door—one of two that Liz had built and installed herself: kitchen to back porch, back door to back yard and all points on the compass—was still swinging freely on its hinges. The beast, she thought, returns.
The water in the sauce pan was boiling. Liz carefully lowered in the two eggs on a spoon, then glanced at her watch. It had to be exactly five and a half minutes, five and a half minutes exactly, or it wasn’t a Patsy Egg, and Patsy wouldn’t touch it. He ate two soft-boiled eggs for breakfast, another two for lunch, but dinner was dinner, he accepted whatever Liz prepared. Except fish, except liver and onions.
Snatching up the kettle she made strong black tea in their cups. Then she remembered mayonnaise and took out the damp wooden boat of Hellman’s from the ice box. Finally, with another glance at her watch (a birthday present from her late sweet husband), Liz put a slice of bread on each flank of the electric toaster, closed the shiny sides of it, and then sat down at the table. She began making her sandwich.
Johnny’s penis really was too big.
She was spooning out Patsy’s first egg into its cradle.
With the Cat of Ashes tucked but struggling in the crook of an arm, Our Patsy stood red-faced and wild-eyed in the doorway that opened to the backstairs. He had on his bathrobe and pajamas, and nothing on his feet. His early-gray hair looked all disarrayed, as if he’d attacked it with his fingers.
“Who’s here?” said Liz. She’d turned back to the pot for the second egg. The first was sitting in a pot of cold water in the sink.
“King! King is home!”
“That’s not funny, don’t say that.” She sounded scolding but not sharp. “King is living far away, Pats, we talked about that. Don’t you remember?”
Naturally, just then someone at the front door began banging a fist on the decoratively etched glass (large script-L framed in laurel).
Her hand trembled, but Liz nevertheless kept the second Patsy Egg balanced in the bowl of the spoon.