Read The Given Day Online

Authors: Dennis Lehane

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Historical, #Thrillers, #Suspense

The Given Day (7 page)

BOOK: The Given Day
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Danny and Nora's affair had begun in April of 1917, the month the United States entered the war against Germany. It was an unseasonably warm month. Flowers bloomed earlier than predicted; near the end of the month their perfume reached windows high above the streets. Lying together in the smell of flowers and the constant threat of a rain that never fell, as the ships left for Europe, as the patriots rallied in the streets, as a new world seemed to sprout beneath them even quicker than the blooming flowers, Danny knew the relationship was doomed. This was even before he'd learned her bleaker secrets, back when the relationship was in the first pink blush of itself. He felt a helplessness that had refused to leave him since he'd woken on the basement floor of Salutation Street. It wasn't just Salutation (though that would play a large role in his thoughts for the rest of his life), it was the world. The way it gathered speed with every passing day. The way the faster it went, the less it seemed to be steered by any rudder or guided by any constellation. The way it just continued to sail on, regardless of him.

Danny left the boarded-up ruin of Salutation and crossed the city
with his flask. Just before dawn, he made his way up onto the Dover Street Bridge and stood looking out at the skyline, at the city caught between dusk and day under a scud of low clouds. It was limestone and brick and glass, its lights darkened for the war effort, a collection of banks and taverns, restaurants and bookstores, jewelers and warehouses and department stores and rooming houses, but he could feel it huddled in the gap between last night and tomorrow morning, as if it had failed to seduce either. At dawn, a city had no finery, no makeup or perfume. It was sawdust on the floors, the overturned tumbler, the lone shoe with a broken strap.

"I'm drunk," he said to the water, and his foggy face stared back at him from a cup of light in the gray water, the reflection of the sole lamp lit under the bridge. "So drunk." He spit down at his reflection, but he missed it.

Voices came from his right and he turned and saw them--the first gaggle of the morning migration heading out of South Boston and up onto the bridge: women and children going into the city proper for work.

He walked off the bridge and found a doorway in a failed fruit wholesalers building. He watched them come, first in clumps and then in streams. Always the women and children first, their shifts an hour or two before the men's so they could return home in time to get dinner ready. Some chatted loudly and gaily, others were quiet or soggy with sleep. The older women moved with palms to their backs or hips or other aches. Many were dressed in the coarse clothing of mill and factory laborers, while others wore the heavily starched, blackand-white uniforms of domestics and hotel cleaners.

He sipped from his flask in the dark doorway, hoping she'd be among them and hoping she wouldn't.

Some children were herded up Dover by two older women who scolded them for crying, for scuffling their feet, for holding up the crowd, and Danny wondered if they were the eldest of their families, sent out at the earliest age to continue the family tradition, or if they were the youngest, and money for school had already been spent.

He saw Nora then. Her hair was covered by a handkerchief tied off behind her head but he knew it was curly and impossible to tame, so she kept it short. He knew by the thickness of her lower eyelids she hadn't slept well. He knew she had a blemish at the base of her spine and the blemish was scarlet red against pale white skin and shaped like a dinner bell. He knew she was self- conscious about her Donegal brogue and had been trying to lose it ever since his father had carried her into the Coughlin household five years ago on Christmas Eve after fi nding her half- starved and frostbitten along the Northern Avenue docks.

She and another girl stepped off the sidewalk to move around the slower children and Danny smiled when the other girl passed a furtive cigarette to Nora and she cupped it in her hand and took a quick puff.

He thought of stepping out of the doorway and calling to her. He pictured himself reflected in her eyes, his eyes swimming with booze and uncertainty. Where others saw bravery, she would see cowardice.

And she'd be right.

Where others saw a tall, strong man, she'd see a weak child. And she'd be right.

So he stayed in the doorway. He stayed there and fingered the bear's-eye button in his pants pocket until she was lost in the crowd heading up Dover Street. And he hated himself and hated her, too, for the ruin they'd made of each other. chapter two Luther lost his job at the munitions factory in September. Came in to do a day's work, found a yellow slip of paper taped to his workbench. It was a Wednesday, and as had become his habit during the week, he'd left his tool bag underneath the bench the night before, each tool tightly wrapped in oilcloth and placed one beside the other. They were his own tools, not the company's, given to him by his Uncle Cornelius, the old man gone blind before his time. When Luther was a boy, Cornelius would sit on the porch and take a small bottle of oil from the overalls he wore whether it was a hundred in the shade or there was frost on the woodpile, and he'd wipe down his tool set, knowing each one by touch and explaining to Luther how that wasn't no crescent wrench, boy, was a monkey wrench, get it straight, and how any man didn't know the difference by touch alone ought just use the monkey wrench, 'cause a monkey what he be. He took to teaching Luther his tools the way he knew them himself. He'd blindfold the boy, Luther giggling on the hot porch, and then he'd hand him a bolt, make him match it to the box points of a socket, make him do it over and over until the blindfold wasn't fun no more, was stinging Luther's eyes with his own sweat. But over time, Luther's hands began to see and smell and taste things to the point where he sometimes suspected his fingers saw colors before his eyes did. Probably why he'd never bobbled a baseball in his life.

Never cut himself on the job neither. Never mashed no thumb working the drill press, never sliced his flesh on a propeller blade by gripping the wrong edge when he went to lift it. And all the while, his eyes remained somewhere else, looking at the tin walls, smelling the world on the other side, knowing someday he'd be out in it, way out in it, and it would be wide.

The yellow slip of paper said "See Bill," and that was all, but Luther felt something in those words that made him reach below his bench and pick up the beat-on leather tool bag and carry it with him as he crossed the work floor toward the shift supervisor's office. He was holding it in his hand when he stood before Bill Hackman's desk, and Bill, sad-eyed and sighing all the time, and not so bad for white folk, said, "Luther, we got to let you go."

Luther felt himself vanish, go so damn small inside of himself that he could feel himself as a needlepoint with no rest of the needle behind it, a dot of almost-air that hung far back in his skull, and him watching his own body stand in front of Bill's desk, and he waited for that needlepoint to tell it to move again.

It's what you had to do with white folk when they talked to you directly, with their eyes on yours. Because they never did that unless they were pretending to ask you for something they planned to just take anyway or, like now, when they were delivering bad news.

"All right," Luther said.

"Wasn't my decision," Bill explained. "All these boys are going to be coming back from the war soon, and they'll need jobs."

"War's still going on," Luther said.

Bill gave him a sad smile, the kind you'd give a dog you were fond of but couldn't teach to sit or roll over. "War's as good as over. Trust me, we know."

By "we," Luther knew he meant the company, and Luther figured if anyone knew, it was the company, because they'd been giving Luther a steady paycheck for helping them make weapons since '15, long before America was supposed to have anything to do with this war.

"All right," Luther said.

"And, yeah, you did fine work here, and we sure tried to find you a place, a way you could stay on, but them boys'll be coming back in buckets, and they fought hard over there, and Uncle Sam, he'll want to say thanks."

"All right."

"Look," Bill said, sounding a bit frustrated, as if Luther were pitching a fight, "you understand, don't you? You wouldn't want us to put those boys, those patriots, out on the street. I mean, how would that look, Luther? Wouldn't look right, I'll tell you right now. Why you yourself would be unable to hold your head high if you walked the street and saw one of them boys pass you by looking for work while you got a fat paycheck in your pocket."

Luther didn't say anything. Didn't mention that a lot of those patriotic boys who risked their lives for their country were colored boys, but he'd sure bet that wasn't who was taking his job. Hell, he'd bet if he came back to the factory a year from now, the only colored faces he'd see would belong to the men working the cleanup shift, emptying the office wastebaskets and sweeping the metal shavings off the work floors. And he didn't wonder aloud how many of those white boys who'd replace all these here coloreds had actually served overseas or got their ribbons for typing or some such in posts down in Georgia or around Kansas way.

Luther didn't open his mouth, just kept it as closed as the rest of him until Bill got tired of arguing with himself and told Luther where he'd need to go to collect his pay.

So there was Luther, his ear to the ground, hearing there might, just might maybe be some work in Youngstown, and someone else had heard tell of hirings in a mine outside of Ravenswood, just over the other side of the river in West Virginia. Economy was getting tight again, though, they all said. White-tight.

And then Lila start talking about an aunt she had in Greenwood. Luther said, "Never heard of that place."

"Ain't in Ohio, baby. Ain't in West Virginia or Kentucky neither." "Then where's it at?"

"Tulsa."

"Oklahoma?"

"Uh- huh," she said, her voice soft, like she'd been planning it for a while and wanted to be subtle about letting him think he made up his own mind.

"Shit, woman." Luther rubbed the outsides of her arms. "I ain't going to no Oklahoma."

"Where you going to go then? Next door?"

"What's next door?" He looked over there.

"Ain't no jobs. That's all I know about next door."

Luther gave that some thought, feeling her circling him, like she was more than a few steps ahead.

"Baby," she said, "Ohio ain't done nothing for us but keep us poor."

"Didn't make us poor."

"Ain't going to make us rich."

They were sitting on the swing he'd built on what remained of the porch where Cornelius had taught him what amounted to his trade. Two-thirds of the porch had washed away in the floods of '13, and Luther kept meaning to rebuild it, but there'd been so much baseball and so much work the last few years, he hadn't found the time. And it occurred to him--he was flush. It wouldn't last forever, Lord knows, but he did have some money put away for the first time in his life. Enough to make a move in any case.

God, he liked Lila. Not so's he was ready to see the preacher and sell all of his youth quite yet; hell, he was only twenty-three. But he sure liked smelling her and talking to her and he sure liked the way she fit into his bones as she curled alongside of him in the porch swing.

"What's in this Greenwood 'sides your aunt?"

"Jobs. They got jobs all over the place. A big, hopping town with nothing but coloreds in it, and they all doing right well, baby. Got themselves doctors and lawyers, and the men own their own fine automobiles and the girls dress real nice on Sundays and everyone owns their own home."

He kissed the top of her head because he didn't believe her but he loved that she wanted to think something should be so bad that half the time she convinced herself it could be.

"Yeah, uh?" He chuckled. "They got themselves some white folk that work the land for them, too?"

She reached back and slapped his forehead and then bit his wrist. "Damn, woman, that's my throwing hand. Watch that shit."

She lifted his wrist and kissed it and then she laid it between her breasts and said, "Feel my tummy, baby."

"I can't reach."

She slid up his body a bit, and then his hand was on her stomach and he tried to go lower but she gripped his wrist.

"Feel it."

"I'm feeling it."

"That's what else is going to be waiting in Greenwood."

"Your stomach?"

She kissed his chin.

"No, fool. Your child."

They took the train from Columbus on the first of October, crossed eight hundred miles of country where the summer fields had traded their gold for furrows of night frost that melted in the morning and dripped over the dirt like cake icing. The sky was the blue of metal that'd just come off the press. Blocks of hay sat in dun-colored fields, and Luther saw a pack of horses in Missouri run for a full mile, their bodies as gray as their breath. And the train streamed through it all, shaking the ground, screaming at the sky, and Luther huffed his breath into the glass and doodled with his finger, drew baseballs, drew bats, drew a child with a head too big for its body.

Lila looked at it and laughed. "That's what our boy gonna look like? Big old head like his daddy? Long skinny body?"

"Nah," Luther said, "gonna look like you."

And he gave the child breasts the size of circus balloons and Lila giggled and swatted his hand and rubbed the child off the window.

The trip took two days and Luther lost some money in a card game with some porters the first night, and Lila stayed mad about that well into the next morning, but otherwise Luther was hard-pressed coming up with a time he'd cherished more in his life. There'd been a few plays here and there on the diamond, and he'd once gone to Memphis when he was seventeen with his cousin, Sweet George, and they'd had themselves a time on Beale Street that he'd never forget, but riding in that train car with Lila, knowing his child lived in her body--her body no longer a singular life, but more like a life-and-a-half--and that they were, as he'd so often dreamed, out in the world, drunk on the speed of their crossing, he felt a lessening of the anxious throb that had lived in his chest since he was a boy. He'd never known where that throb came from, only that it had always been there and he'd tried to work it away and play it away and drink it away and fuck it away and sleep it away his whole life. But now, sitting on a seat with his feet on a floor that was bolted to a steel underbelly that was strapped to wheels that locked onto rails and hurtled through time and distance as if time and distance weren't nothing at all, he loved his life and he loved Lila and he loved their child and he knew, as he always had, that he loved speed, because things that possessed it could not be tethered, and so, they couldn't be sold.

BOOK: The Given Day
9.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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